It's time to end Rose Garden Politics
Soon after the Coalition was formed, David Cameron and Nick Clegg gave a memorably chummy press conference in Downing Street's rose garden. Its easy tone and style reflected the relief which most voters will have felt at getting rid of Gordon Brown, and the hope with which many will have greeted a government of two parties working "together in the national interest". Going further, it seemed that the aims and ambitions of both partners, set out in the Coalition Agreement, were so similar that the two might as well, in future, merge into one.
This degree of closeness hasn't done Nick Clegg much good. The Liberal Democrats have hit their worst poll ratings ever. Over the Christmas break, Adrian Sanders called for the Party to distance itself from the Conservatives, and trumpet its victories within Government. Earlier this week, Rachel Sylvester reported that the Deputy Prime Minister's begun to do exactly that: "On bank bonuses, control orders, electoral reform and the House of Lords, Mr Clegg has begun to emphasise his own distinct agenda. Yesterday... the Deputy Prime Minister even trotted out a list of Lib Dem achievements in government."
The Prime Minister should also now distance his Party from the Liberal Democrats. Conservative backbenchers and party members alike want to see it retain its own distinct identity, and a sense that Liberal Democrat concerns are more important to Downing Street than their own helps to explain, at least in part, recent rebellions and discontent, and hence the Government working less effectively than it might. But how's that to be done, since the two parties must work shoulder-to-shoulder in Westminster and Whitehall - merging personnel, for example, in a single Number 10 policy unit?
Here's a suggestion to start. In future, the Party should fight by-elections to win. As Jonathan points out today, it was never likely to win Oldham East and Saddleworth. But the lack of an enthusiastic start made such an outcome certain, and the repercussions of Downing Street's determination to pull CCHQ's campaigning punches have been damaging. Some of the wilder talk about electoral pacts was sparked by the Prime Minister's ambiguous early remarks wishing the Liberal Democrats well. The Party can't afford to run its campaigning capacities down.
The Government can survive by-election reverses. It's time to stop the puffing of electoral pacts and hints of eventual mergers, and accept that the Coalition is a short-term and not a long-term arrangement: a specific deal meeting specific needs, that's delivering a great deal of good and which should last the full course of this Parliament. Then it's back to campaigning against each other at the next election. Cooler, clearer dealings between the two parties would help to calm the Government, and remind the Coalition partners that their relationship is exactly that - a cohabitation, not a marriage.