Nine months from now, we will be asked the following question: “Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first-past-the-post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?” Nick Clegg will, in what is becoming his habitual manner, claim this as a great victory for his party with an uncomfortable mix of bashfulness and pugnacity. This was a shtick which stood him in poor stead for his debut at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, which hadn’t even ended before Tory spokesmen were insisting that the Liberal Democrat leader was not speaking for the Coalition when he declared the Iraq War illegal (and probably in anything else he said, were they to be pressed). Liberal Democrats everywhere must be heartened by the news that their Cabinet moles do not speak for the Coalition in those moments when they disagree with the Tory leadership.
In fairness, it is not just Liberal Democrats who are being shot down – if Vince Cable must still be smarting after summary and rapid dismissal of his graduate tax proposal, Liam Fox can be no less wounded by Cameroon insistence that his comments to the Telegraph this week that the UK can no longer defend itself against all threats were bobbins. Only Cameron – who this week seemed to suggest on his visit to Barack Obama that in 1940 Britain was the junior partner to a USA which had not yet entered the war – is allowed to make mistakes without condemnation being delivered swiftly and severely.
The criticism instead comes from outside the Cameroon Coalition. At the Coffee House, David Blackburn underplays today’s reports that David Davis has been calling the government the ‘Brokeback Coalition’; Blackburn’s probably right to do so on one level, since one senses a sixth-form joke about Cameron and Clegg somewhere in this. On another, though, it’s the sort of soundbite – a ‘from Stalin to Mr Bean’ – which can gain wider traction. More interesting, and yet along the same lines, is Chris Patten’s suggestion in a Straight Talk interview this weekend that the government risks seeming ‘breathless’. Patten is ideologically no die-hard enemy of Cameron’s project; his criticism is constructive, but hints that the competing messages, and messy initiatives, which have begun to characterise what had at first seemed a solid start by the government risk coming to define it.
The Telegraph profiles Francis Maude this morning, suggesting that, in his position at the centre of the Cameroon networks, he resembles a Tory Mandelson. If this were true, one might detect a greater intellectual centre of gravity in the government. The Coalition is in a rush to dismantle things – Labour’s legacy, the state, what it perceives to be civil rights infringements – but no coherence is emerging out of the babble. If this continues, then nine months from now we may answer that question in a radically different context.