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Nick Clegg seems to clear David Cameron of the charge of having lied to the '22 in order to form the Coalition

By Paul Goodman

Cameron and Clegg - studious Was the Conservative Parliamentary Party sold the Coalition on the basis of a lie?  The question has been whispered around Westminster since the Coalition was formed.  David Cameron told his Shadow Cabinet and Parliamentary Party during the post-election party talks that Labour had offered the Liberal Democrats the replacement of First Past The Post by the Alternative Vote for Westminster elections without a referendum.  On this basis, the Parliamentary Party reluctantly agreed to swallow AV if a poll endorsed it.

Julian Lewis, a formidable pursuer of causes, asked Nick Clegg in the Commons on June 7 whether Labour made such an offer to his party in the Commons.  The Deputy Prime Minister replied unambiguously: "The answer is no."  Jack Straw claimed in the same debate that this was the case.  This left open two possibilities: either that Clegg at best had misled Cameron, or that Cameron at best had misled the '22.  It became evident recently that the media would press the matter.  For example, the Daily Mail did so on July 13.

In a BBC documentary to be broadcast this evening, Clegg is asked whether or not he misled Cameron - and seems to confirm that he did.  Clegg says:

"The perception, which I think was accurate, was discussions are out and it might have been an offer that might had been made and might have been considered. In answer to your direct question – was it ever formally made to me? – no, it wasn't formally made to me." 

In turn, Cameron implies that other Liberal Democrat sources had told him that Labour had made the Liberal Democrats the offer.

The Deputy Prime Minister's words appear to clear the Prime Minister of lying to the '22.  One can go no further because neither man, on the basis of quotes from the programme circulating this morning, seem keen to discuss the matter in detail.  To be fair to both, talks between political parties in such circumstances aren't always straightforward.  Side players and elder statesman can appear with claims of their own about what's taking place - or may be.

None the less, a further question will be asked: namely, shouldn't Cameron have pinned Clegg down on Labour's offer before stating to his colleagues that AV without a referendum had been put on the table?  Perhaps both leaders were so eager to form a Government together that neither had an interest in getting to the heart of the matter.  Tory backbenchers (and some frontbenchers, too) haven't forgotten the Prime Minister's recent attempt effectively to abolish the '22.  Some are likely to feel today that they would have recommended trying to govern alone had they known then what they know now - and will press Cameron to campaign strongly against AV in any referendum.

> BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson has written this piece for today's Telegraph previewing tonight's programme, Five Days that Changed Britain.


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