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David Cameron as well as Nick Clegg is behind this week's messages from the Liberal Conference

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-09-22 at 08.02.08 Chris Huhne's Liberal Democrat Conference speech dominated yesterday morning's political coverage.  Vince Cable's conference remarks about banking did the same yesterday afternoon, and finds its way on to several newspaper front pages this morning.  One way in which the event's been interpreted is as the Liberal Democrats pulling the Government left - on tax evasion, for example.  It's indisputable that the two parties that make up the Coalition are tugging it in different directions, especially when MPs and party members are taken into account.  Tim has argued that the Coalition will move left or break up.  I've maintained that the Government's more like a pushmepullyou, with the left and right straining at it from either side.

But there are other and no less accurate ways of viewing Cable's remarks and his party's conference.  One is in the context of what's going on within both the two parties as well as between them.  Our conference coverage has picked up on the possibility of prisoners being entitled to vote,Trident renewal being delayed, and Chris Huhne's green tax plans - as well as the tax evasion announcement.  It's true that all these proposals would be greeted rapturously by most of the Liberal Democrat rank and file.  But there's more to most of them than that.  For example, the drive for prisoners voting has a strong European component: it hasn't simply been dreamed up by the Liberal Democrat activists or MPs.

Similarly, parts of the Treasury favour postponing a Trident decision.  Green taxes were part of Conservative plans in opposition (though, as Tim pointed out yesterday, in the form of replacement taxes).  Mark Hoban, the Financial Treasury to the Secretary, has written severely about the banks and floated the possibility of a remuneration disclosure regime.  David Gauke, another member of George Osborne's team, has said that the £42 "tax evasion gap" is "staggering".  This isn't to say that there's no difference between the two parties' leadership.  There is, as Cable's musings about taxing bonuses indicates: The Treasury will be resistant to such plans, just as Number 10 disagrees with his view on the immigration cap.

The key point is that the differences between the Coalition partners are both real and artificial at once.  Real, because at the top the two parties disagree on much (such as the cap or AV), and at the bottom on a very great deal (such as the EU and immigration more broadly).  And artificial, because both leaderships have an interest in presenting the Liberal Democrat face of the Coalition this week and the Conservative one in a fortnight, and from then on as they see fit.  On Monday, addressed not so much the nation as Liberal Democrat voters and activists, and the thrust of his message was that the Coalition's implementing Liberal Democrat ideas.  Cameron will do the reverse in Birmingham, at least in part.

In short, there's an element of stage management to the Coalition's tensions - to give a relatively small example, Cameron will doubtless have read and commented on Clegg's conference speech draft - and it's not always easy to distinguish a real row from licensed dissent.  Cable's remarks must be seen in the same context - as should his announcement today of a consultation into City takeovers.  Note that his conference speech later today has been timed towards its end, in order to cheer Liberal Democrat activists up - the role that John Prescott used to perform for Labour.  From the point of view of party management, all this is understandable.  From the point of view of getting over a clear Coalition message, it's a problem.


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