Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg have turned on the Conservatives and their dishonesty in respect to their claims about AV.
Firstly, Clegg rocked the coalition boat in an interview with The Independent in which he raged against the “death rattle of a right-wing elite, a right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are”. Comparing the views of the respective party leaders towards electoral reform, he opined that one one side you’d have him, “Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas, Nigel Farage, Alex Salmond and Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid Cymru leader). The other side, you'd have David Cameron, (BNP) Nick Griffin and whoever leads the Communist Party. Now that tells you volumes about the very reactionary interests that are defending the indefensible."
Clegg’s anger is understandable. Firstly, he’s been unfairly singled out by the “No” campaign, who have sought to turn the referendum question into a vote of confidence in Nick Clegg. Then we had the unnecessary campaign of fear and misinformation: the myth that AV is just too complicated for British voters; that a “No” vote would somehow fund new maternity units; that AV is undemocratic and would create instability; that a new voting system would require expensive counting equipment. SDLP councillor Niall Kelly today rubbished this last claim on Twitter with a link to a rather entertaining demonstration of the kind of equipment AV actually needs.
Huhne has also gone on the attack, going as far as to suggest the Tories could face “legal redress”. As today’s Guardian reports, Huhne “is concerned about two claims made by the Conservatives – that a move to AV will need new counting machines, and so cost as much as £250m, and that it will favour extremist parties. He said: ‘If they don’t come clean on this, I am sure the law courts will. Australia’s used [AV] for 80 years without ever using voting machines. If they can’t substantiate that, there’s simple legal redress. They had better come clean pretty fast.’”
It’s not surprising that senior Lib Dems have retaliated to the blatant mistruths being peddled by the Tories. The unwritten agreement that Cameron would not be involved in the “No” campaign seems to have been forgotten by the PM, which won’t have pleased his Lib Dem cabinet colleagues. But Cameron’s interference does not in itself account for the unusually aggressive responses from Clegg and Huhne. What is really surprising it’s the language Nick Clegg is using to describe those only months ago he claimed to be working exceptionally well with.
As Huhne explained to the BBC: “It is frankly worrying if you have colleagues, who you have respected and who you have worked well with, who are making claims which have no foundation in truth whatsoever. If they don’t come clean on this, I am sure the law courts will. It is going to undermine the credibility of colleague ministers – the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer and the foreign secretary [William Hague] – if they use repeatedly allegations that have no foundation in truth whatsoever.” He’s right of course. I’m sick of right-wing Tories and their dishonesty over AV – just today Iain Dale was alleging hypocrisy on the part of a Lib Dem MP who had championed AV “to make MPs work harder”. Why? Because today the MP in question was at a football match. Ridiculous? Yes. But this comes from an intelligent and respected blogger who really should know better.
In the past few weeks, tensions and disagreements have become more obvious on a range of issues including the future of the NHS. Vince Cable and Simon Hughes have also been critical voices in recent days. Some may speculate that this is the beginning of the end and that the coalition will soon unravel. I don’t buy this, but I admit that it’s highly irregular to be threatening legal action against fellow cabinet colleagues. In fact, it's virtually unprecedented in modern politics. That Clegg and Huhne have been so forthright in their attacks indicates that the concern within the party is very real and not simply pre-election posturing.
That’s not to say that there is not some opportunism in play here; I don’t doubt for a moment that the pending elections and referendum have influenced the timing and nature of the criticisms. But the tensions are genuine and stem from real frustrations that will have a bearing on the working relationships in cabinet. Further comments from Clegg yesterday, this time on the injustice of internships and Cameron’s apparent relaxed attitude towards them, underlines this. This isn’t simply cynical electioneering.
Is this the death knell for the coalition? No. There is no irreparable schism. But relationships will have been damaged and trust will have been lost. And if “legal redress” is pursued, existing tensions will be heightened to such a level as to render co-operation on certain matters virtually impossible.
As for Clegg and Huhne, at least they’ve put paid to that other myth – that Lib Dem ministers lack backbone. In standing up to the Tories over internships, the NHS and the campaign of misinformation that is No2AV, the party leadership has shown the kind of courage demanded by party activists tired of Clegg’s apparent timidity. Whether this will have any significant effect on the Lib Dems’ poll ratings or the long-term success of the coalition remains to be seen. Neither seems likely but the latter is certainly more probable than the former.