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The Conservative-Liberal Democrat relationship? We're united by "deep bonds of trust", Oliver Letwin tells the Guardian

by Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-12-23 at 07.03.55 Stewart Jackson was right to raise at least one eyebrow on twitter yesterday evening about the timing of Oliver Letwin's Guardian interview today.  However, Letwin says nothing about Vince Cable's agonies and the Daily Telegraph's antics, and the interviewers confirm that he gave it before the Business Secretary was stripped of his BSkyB responsibilities.

Letwin once went into hiding after an interview he gave to the Financial Times in which he suggested, during the 2001 general election campaign, that a Conservative Government would cut taxes by £20 billion (if only).  Labour produced a "Wanted" poster.  The then Shadow Chief Secretary was tracked down by journalists to an event in his Dorset constituency at which he was reported to be wearing a toga (see photograph).

The good news for Letwin, and the for Government as a whole, is that he won't have to repeat the exercise this weekend.  He'll have known that the Guardian will have wanted further indications that Cameron Central wants to fight the next election with the Liberal Democrats as a single force.  (David Cameron was at it again in his joint press conference with Nick Clegg earlier this week.)  The Cabinet Office Minister drops no such hint.  Indeed, he does his best to tell the Guardian nothing at all.

A Cabinet Minister's obligation when pressed on this matter is to burble nicely about how wonderfully everyone's getting on, and then head for the door as fast as possible.  Letwin says that the two parties are working together in government on a "second tranche" of policies, but this isn't news.  He's obliged to deny that the Conservatives could do better out of the Coalition than the Liberal Democrats, and thus says that they'll both do splendidly, thank you very much.

He also issues an accurate reminder about strain within the Government: "It is as much blue on blue and yellow on yellow, as it is blue on yellow."  Chris Chope, the 1992 Committee's Secretary, said yesterday that Cable should have gone, adding to John Whittingdale's strong hint the day before.  That both said what they did points again to Conservative backbench restiveness over, in particular, William Hague and Theresa May's granting of more powers to the EU, Ken Clarke's prisons policy, and Cameron's enthusiasm for the Liberal Democrats.

Letwin is well known to share it.  That's why his language about the Party's Coalition partners is turned up to as warm a temperature as discretion will bear.  The Liberal Democrats are having the much the same debate.  The Cable imbroglio has helped driven home to them that they have two options.  First, to do what he did, though in public rather than (as he supposed) in private - namely, make the most of their differences with the Tories, claim victories in the struggle for policy formation, and thus try to prop up their vote.

This is the approach championed by Adrian Sanders, the Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay, in a frank letter on his website.  The Liberal Democrats second option is to do what Clegg does - in other words, smooth over the differences, say that the differences beween the two parties aren't as great as most suppose, and thus leave the door open to a longer-term pact.  The Liberal Democrat leader and the Conservative Cabinet Office Minister are thus on the same page.

Which is just where Sanders doesn't want to be.  And, in the blue corner, Chris Chope, agrees.  As well as lots of others.  Expect to hear more of Montgomerie's Law of the Coalition and Goodman's Coalition Dilemna during the New Year.  Will the Coalition move left or break up, or be tugged back and forth between competing pressures fron the two parties?

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