The coalition in the UK between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has struck me as mightily strange from the moment it was formed. My immediate reaction was that it would result in the Lib-Dems fading into insignificance at the next election in the same way as the Democrats did in Australia after they sided with the Liberals and Nationals to introduce the GST. When parliamentarians do things contrary to the beliefs of many of their supporters they do so at their peril – just look at the state of the Australian Labor Party in New South Wales and Queensland where governments have gone ahead with privatisations despite opposition from the trade union heart of the party.
The inevitable tensions are already emerging in the UK where the Lib-Dems went to the election with a policy of free tertiary education but in government its members with offices in the Coalition Government have voted in favour of hefty fee increases. The pollsters are showing a dramatic drop in support for the minor Coalition member and now we have some extraordinary revelations in London’s Daily Telegraph of how a senior Lib-Dem minister Vince Cable has privately threatened to “bring the Government down” if he is “pushed too far” during fractious discussions with his Conservative colleagues.
The Telegraph’s expose of the tensions between the Coalition partners came after two of its journalists posed as constituents of Business Secretary Cable and secretly recorded a conversation with him. The report says the Business Secretary also claims that David Cameron will seek to scrap or reduce the winter fuel allowance paid to pensioners from next year. He believes that policies are being rushed through by the Conservatives and that ministers should be “putting a brake on” some proposals, which are in “danger of getting out of control”. Mr Cable says that, behind the scenes, the Tories and Liberal Democrats are fighting a “constant battle”, including over tax proposals. Likening the conflict to a war, he says he can always use the “nuclear option” of resignation. His departure from the Government would spell the end of the Coalition, he claims.
The disclosures emerged in a secret recording of a conversation Mr Cable had with two reporters from The Daily Telegraph posing as Lib Dem voters in his constituency.
They provide the first concrete evidence of the level of distrust and infighting taking place within the Coalition. His comments indicate that the public professions of support between the parties may not be a true reflection of what is occurring in Cabinet. Mr Cable has appeared uncomfortable in the Coalition and his comments will lead to speculation that he could be the first high-profile member of the Government to quit.
Following divisions within the Lib Dems over the raising of tuition fees, this newspaper has begun an investigation into the party’s true feelings towards the Coalition and it discloses widespread unease.
In the coming days, The Daily Telegraph will expose further concerns among Lib Dem ministers about Coalition policy and senior Conservative figures. In the conversation at his constituency surgery, Mr Cable was asked about his influence in government. He said: “Can I be very frank with you … I have a nuclear option, it’s like fighting a war. They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don’t have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far then I can walk out of the Government and bring the Government down and they know that.”
The comments will heighten fears that Mr Cable may be prepared to walk out of the Government if the Coalition fails to curtail bank bonuses, which is an issue he has championed. A meeting between Mr Cable, George Osborne, the Chancellor, and bank executives over the issue was cancelled yesterday after Mr Osborne was stranded in the US due to the bad weather.