David Cameron really should be sharing Nick Clegg's pain
ne is enough," said Winston Churchill of parliamentary votes. Talk to the more sanguine members of the coalition and they will tell you that a Commons majority of 21 in the division on tuition fees is therefore 20 more than enough. They can even muster a case that the outcome was an impressive demonstration of the resilience of this novel form of government. In the fiery crucible, the coalition has passed its first tough test - not with ease, but nevertheless by a reasonably comfortable parliamentary margin. When Tony Blair first introduced tuition fees, he was leading a single-party government which had won the previous election by a landslide. He only just squeaked through with a shrivelled majority of five. Compared with that, if you are a half-glassfull sort of Lib Dem, then a majority of 21 can be made to look positively impressive. If you are a glass-draining-away sort of Lib Dem, this sounds altogether too complacent. Only the most naive in their ranks thought government was going to be a piece of cake, but few of them anticipated that they would have aroused so much hostility, split so starkly, taken such a hit to their leader's reputation and tanked in the polls this early on in the life of the coalition. The question is not whether the last few weeks have been traumatising and wounding for the Lib Dems. They have clearly been both. The question is the depth and the permanence of the damage. In a very vivid and very public way, the Lib Dems split down the middle. The divide was not along ideological lines. MPs usually regarded as on the left of the party, MPs such as Norman Baker, Sarah Teather and Steve Webb, voted for the fees legislation. What they have in common is that they are members of the government. The Lib Dem ministers were with Nick Clegg in the aye lobby along with the great majority of Conservative MPs who had been successfully kettled by the Tory whips. Twenty seven out of 34 Lib Dem backbenchers, more than three quarters of them, refused to follow their leader. They either abstained or joined Labour and the other opposition parties in the no lobby. If this fracture on one vote develops into a fissure on many then the durability of the coalition has to be in doubt.
Whether that happens hangs on whether Nick Clegg can sustain the confidence of his colleagues that they were right to go into coalition with the Tories in the first place. To those who are no longer sure, Mr Clegg's answer is that these are the birth pangs of making the transition from being a party of permanent protest into a party of power against whom people protest. There's truth in that. But it would be a great deal easier for the Lib Dems and their dwindling numbers of supporters to pay that penalty if the pain was being equally shared by the Conservatives.
An idea about the coalition is beginning to take hold. This idea will eat away at Nick Clegg's authority over his party and ultimately prove fatal for the coalition if it hardens into a fixed view of how this government works. The idea is that the Lib Dems have become the coalition's fall guys, the hapless human shields for David Cameron and George Osborne, the useful idiots of the Tories. In any bargain between two parties, there will always be a tension created by the question: who is getting the most out of this deal? When Nick Clegg tied the knot with David Cameron, the Lib Dems supplied the Tory leader with the parliamentary majority that he had been denied by the electorate. Lib Dem involvement also made the government look broader-based and more consensual than a purely Tory administration, helping David Cameron with his restorationist project for the Conservatives. The Lib Dem contingent further provided the Tory leader with allies against the unreconstructed right of his own party. In return, the Lib Dems got to enjoy their first taste of cabinet-level power in more than half a century. After decades consigned to wittering impotently from the margins, here was an opportunity to shape and implement policy with the potential reward of being taken a lot more seriously by the voters in future elections so long as the coalition was broadly regarded as a success.