David Cameron needs to be ready for an early General Election
I don't yet say that the Prime Minister should seek an early General Election but there are a number of reasons why he should prepare for the possibility.
THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS' UGLY BEHAVIOUR: In recent days we have seen an explosion of rage from senior Liberal Democrats. Despite what William Hague said yesterday, the accusations they've made about "lies" and "smears" have been directed against Conservative ministers, not just the No2AV campaign. Chris Huhne has himself admitted that it's going to be harder for him to now work with George Osborne (who he has accused of smears) and Sayeeda Warsi (who he has accused of Goebbels-like propaganda). He has declined to say he won't resign. The Coalition is set to become an unhappy place where trust is in short supply.
CLEGG'S NEED TO TAKE THE COALITION LEFTWARDS: This morning's newspapers are full of suggestions that Nick Clegg is going to fight hard and publicly over the next few months for a stronger Liberal Democrat identity in the Coalition. The Times, Guardian and FT report that the biggest battles are set to be over university access (including confrontation with Oxford and Cambridge), NHS reforms, bank regulation, housing benefit and Lords reform. 92% of Tory activists who look at the Coalition's milk-and-water policies on Europe, the family, defence, tax and crime already think the Liberal Democrats have taken enough chunks out of the Tory manifesto and there's no room for even more concessions. There's talk of a new, mid-term Coalition Agreement. As long as it protects the three central missions of the Coalition (fixing the economy, welfare reform and delivering world class education) it need not be deadly but it is likely to give ground to Clegg in order to bolster his weak position.
NICK CLEGG IS VERY VULNERABLE TO A LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE: The motivation for 'Phase II Clegg' are growing fears among the Deputy PM's entourage that he will face a leadership challenge at some point. It's one of the explanations for his incendiary remarks in the Independent on Sunday. He can't be seen to be silent about David Cameron when Ashdown, Cable, Hughes and particularly Huhne are attacking the Conservatives. Even John Kampfner in an article for today's FT (£), in which he looks at a fightback strategy for Clegg, seems to think a leadership challenge is only a matter of time. A Liberal Democrat leadership contest itself - let alone a new leader - pulls the Lib Dems, and therefore, potentially the Coalition, leftwards.
MOST LIBERAL DEMOCRATS ARE AIMING FOR AN ALLIANCE WITH LABOUR: David Cameron should be under no illusions as to who he's sharing his political bed with. Clegg is not the Liberal Democrat party. A few Orange Bookers including Clegg, Laws, Alexander and Browne are not representative although they've seized control of their party. Cable is closer to the true ideological centre of the Liberal Democrats and his Guardian interview, on Saturday, in which he openly discussed building an anti-Tory progressive majority is the political project that most Liberal Democrats are working towards. We are in alliance with a party that largely wants our defeat.
AS LONG AS WE ARE IN THE COALITION WE CAN'T CONVINCE VOTERS COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM IS REAL: Every good thing the Coalition does - on helping the poor at home or overseas - is going to be claimed by the Liberal Democrats.
LABOUR ARE STILL BEATABLE NOW: Ed Miliband may be ahead in the opinion polls but he is not seen as prime ministerial and Labour still trails the Tories on economic competence. Labour have no money and no policies. It would be a big gamble but if an election was triggered on the right basis we would see a classic two party fight and the likelihood is that the Tories would win it.
Key to any successful election would be finding the right trigger. Cameron cannot end the Coalition without good reason. Voters would not welcome an election that looked unnecessary. The Coalition would need to founder on an important issue that put the Conservative leader on the side of the majority of the British people. A clash with the European Courts on votes for prisoners, where the Liberal Democrats side with the Strasbourg judges, might provide such an opportunity.
The Prime Minister has always been the kind of tactical politician who prefers a bird-in-the-hand to two-in-the-bush so he'll do everything to avoid an election. He would need to be sure of winning the election outright because the Liberal Democrats wouldn't be available for a second partnership.
Mr Cameron needs to understand, however, that there may be no easy options. It might be a choice between going to the country soon, at a time of his choosing, or at a time (later in this parliament) chosen by a new Liberal Democrat leader. Cameron’s government may be tied to a political corpse but the death throes might be ugly as the wipe out of the Liberal Democrats, particularly in the north and Scotland, leads to a series of bloody and eventually successful attempts to oust Nick Clegg.
My bottom line: The Coalition could soon become paralysed by civil war inside the Liberal Democrats.