By Paul Goodman
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Imagine a civil partnership of which one member suddenly announced to the world: "My partner has refused to cook me any food. So I am refusing to give him any sex. But don't worry for a moment: we must now restore balance to our relationship, allowing us to draw a line under these events and get on with our civil partnership." Such a proclamation would scarcely persuade friends of the happy couple that the arrangement had much of a future.
I apologise in advance if the comparison is in any way offensive, but this is roughly what Nick Clegg seemed to say yesterday when he declared that since some Conservative backbenchers didn't support Lords reform he will now require all Liberal Democrat frontbenchers to oppose the boundary review.
Sure enough, the Deputy Prime Minister added that "we must now restore balance to the Coalition Agreement, allowing us to draw a line under these events and get on with the rest of our Programme for Government", and Tories and Liberal Democrats can argue back and forth who is to blame for what has happened. I think it's clear that the Coalition Agreement committed the Liberal Democrat front bench to the boundary review, but others will doubtless disagree.
This scarcely matters. For what counts now is not so much how trust has broken down as that it has done so. Mr Clegg plainly feels that he can't trust Conservative backbenchers. They in turn will feel that they can't trust him, his frontbenchers, or his party. And if there is no mutual trust, it is hard to see how the Coalition can survive the year as a workable project, if at all.
The Deputy Prime Minister said that the Liberal Democrats remain focused on "rescuing, repairing and rebalancing the economy", but this is a bit like saying that despite the mutual food and sex ban the couple will strive to keep the household finances in order. It scarcely disguises the fact that the Cameron and Clegg's civil partnership is in deep trouble, since the latter, to follow the metaphor, isn't enjoying any food and the former isn't getting any sex.
Indeed, a deal of this kind – nothing much doing in the kitchen or the bedroom, but orderly consideration of domestic finances – sounds remarkably like a domestic equivalent of "confidence and supply": exactly the arrangement which many Tory MPs and two then Conservative Shadow Cabinet members, Chris Grayling and Theresa Villers, wanted in the first place.
It may of course be that I am wrong, and that the Coalition lasts until 2015. But consider the matter from the viewpoint of the J.Alfred Prufrock MPs of the Tory backbenches – the real players in the present drama, since their lack of attachment to faction or viewpoint is more than compensated for by their relatively large numbers and, therefore, their decisive impact on internal events. Their prime motive is simple: they want to save their seats.
Their appreciation of the Prime Minister for his part in winning those seats is mingled by resentment that he didn't achieve a majority. But to date they have suspended judgement, since they have been assured that he has a master plan: namely, a boundary review which would have the happy effect of greatly reducing Labour's electoral advantage.
Some of these Prufrocks lose out from the review but more gain. And, suddenly, it is not to be effected (unless the Deputy Prime Minister backs down or the revision can be voted through anyway: the latter event appears to me to be even more unlikely than the first). At a stroke, Mr Cameron will need an 8-10% poll lead over Labour at the next election. If he couldn't manage it last time round, how on earth will he manage it next time?
Even more importantly, what is his plan for managing it? He could of course try to transform himself into a more conservative Conservative – championing an EU referendum and big tax cuts and withdrawal from the ECHR and new grammar schools and no gay marriage and no more onshore wind farms, and so on.
But he could not get such measures through the Government if in Coalition or through Parliament if not, since the Liberal Democrats would join Labour in voting them down. He could of course promise them in the next Conservative Manifesto, but there would be something unconvincing about his doing so. After all, the Prime Minister is not a conservative Conservative – in crude terms – but a self-proclaimed liberal conservative: that's how he made his name.
And were he to give up trying to be one, any Government that he led in future would seem less coherent than that he leads now – and although it has many strengths, coherence is not one of them. In short, the Prufrocks are asking a question – what's your plan to win now? – to which there appears to be no answer.
Mr Cameron might reasonably reply that Mr Clegg has simply done what he – the Prime Minister – warned his backbenchers the Deputy Prime Minister would do were Lords reform denied his party. But politics, as Mr Cameron knows full well, isn't a fair business. As far as the Prufrocks are concerned, he didn't win the last next election and now won't win the next one, either – and, worse, their seats and careers are in play and in peril.
The Commons meets again in September. With the collapse of Lords Reform, business is unlikely to be heavy. Mr Cameron is not due to address the 1922 Committee, but it would be surprising were he not asked to do so. The Committee's Executive will also meet. And a minority of Tory MPs are less well disposed to him than the Prufrocks.
Their resentment began with the A-list – which they felt told them their faces didn't fit – and its effects linger still: they will seize on the Louise Mensch-caused Corby by-election as evidence of the frivolity of a project that prized fashion (in their view) above proven track records. They won't be slow to remind their colleagues that Ms Mensch was a Tory turned admirer of Tony Blair turned Tory again – a symbol, they will claim, of what's gone wrong.
We know the rest of the score. The non-recovery. The budget (and other) U-turns. The Eurozone crisis. The absence of a big growth plan. The creakiness of the Number 10 machine. The resurgence of Miliband. The persistence of UKIP. The presence of Boris.
I spoke yesterday to a senior Minister who told me that if the Liberal Democrats don't vote for the boundary review, Mr Cameron should go for minority government, and to a senior source who said that the party has suddenly moved much closer to a leadership election. True, Mr Cameron has no big Conservative rival either in his Cabinet or on the backbenchers. And conventional wisdom is that he won't be deposed unless there is one.
I wonder. There was no single agreed successor to either Margaret Thatcher or Iain Duncan Smith when they were forced out by Tory MPs. The number of malcontents is probably 40 or so. But add to that number some panicky Prufrocks and one's getting on for at least a fifth of the Parliamentary Party. A single day has raised the risk to the Coalition's survival. And to Mr Cameron's too.