Coalition already stuttering as Tories query issues of Europe and vote system reform
BRITAIN: A day after the love-in between David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the new coalition Government came down to earth yesterday as Conservative MPs expressed doubts that the partnership would last.
The unity between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats showed its first signs of cracking as Tory backbenchers began to question policies on electoral reform, Europe and a controversial plan to change the Commons rules to prevent a snap general election being triggered.
Although the first meeting of the Cabinet was good humoured, reality dawned with appeals for any differences between the two partners to be kept private. A committee, chaired jointly by Cameron and Clegg, will be set up to resolve them.
Lord Heseltine, the Tory former Deputy Prime Minister, said the inevitable public spending cuts would cause “terrible strains” between the two coalition parties and within them. “We are living in a false dawn,” he said. “The sun is shining. Let’s enjoy it. It is not going to last very long …
There is a rocky road ahead.”
Tory MPs questioned the plan for the coalition to last five years and doubted it would survive until the next general election. Richard Drax, new Tory MP for South Dorset, said he had grave concerns about how long the agreement would last.
Although he could see why it had been made in the national interest, he added: “I have severe reservations about how long a coalition with the Lib Dems can last and about the consequences for our party in the long term.
“This is not what the public voted for – the Lib Dems lost seats. Why we’re in this position, in my view, is because the public is fed up with all of us. They have now got a hung parliament, which I don’t think most people wanted.”
Mr Drax suggested Mr Cameron should have held back from a pact with Clegg’s party. “Then we’d have another general election – in a matter of weeks, maybe – and I think if that had happened we’d have stormed home.”
Ian Liddell-Grainger, Tory MP for Bridgwater, said: “I think if it lasts a couple of years, this Government will have done well. The Lib Dems will find it more difficult to take criticism than we will. Their history of being in government is pretty sad,” he said.
Some Tory MPs privately threatened to vote against a bill to call a referendum on the use of the alternative vote system for Commons elections. There were also signs of rebellion over the plan by the two party leaderships to require 55 per cent of MPs to support a dissolution of Parliament and trigger a general election, instead of a simple majority as at present. The change is designed to prevent either side walking out before five years, but several Tories are urging a rethink. Europe, an issue which destabilised the Tory Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, also resurfaced. Several Tory MPs admitted they did not trust the Lib Dems, the most pro-European of the three parties, on the issue.
They are alarmed that the coalition has watered down the Tory manifesto pledge to repatriate some powers from Brussels and will demand a referendum if any powers are ceded to the European Union under the Treaty of Lisbon, which Britain has ratified.
On the other side, some Liberal Democrat MPs expressed concern that Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, appeared to