By Peter Hoskin
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All of a sudden, Westminster is ablaze with ideas for maintaining the lifespan of the Coalition. David Cameron and Nick Clegg drew attention to one of them during their exercise in mutual backslappery yesterday: infrastructure spending that both sides can agree upon. But there’s much more than that, as Dominic Raab’s article for the Financial Times (£) makes clear. Mr Raab suggests reorienting the government towards ‘certain British liberal values common to both parties,’ such as the promotion of civil liberties and of enterprise.
Broadly speaking, I’m on Raab’s side here (rather than, say, Peter Bone’s). Both for the health of the economy, and the image of all concerned, an attempt must be made to preserve the Coalition until 2015. But I do doubt whether it can actually happen, and for one reason above all others: Europe. In practical political terms, Europe is the biggest area of divide between the coalition partners — and it also happens to be one of the biggest issues in our present and our future.
The situation was summed up yesterday by a much less publicised event than Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg’s railway jamboree: Nigel Farage’s challenge to the Prime Minister for a public debate on Europe, and his call for an in/out referendum. As Europe’s economic sickness continues, and bleeds across the Channel, the pressure on Mr Cameron to accede to Mr Farage’s demands — from his own backbenchers and beyond — can only increase. And yet we know that the Lib Dems will oppose any shift in that direction. When it was announced last week that William Hague was launching a review into Europe’s reach into British politics, Mr Clegg’s party immediately hit back against the idea of repatriation.
Much of the problem is caused by the Coalition Agreement itself, which is far too nebulous on matters European. The full extent of the Continent’s economic crisis was not known in May 2010, so both sides found it more convenient to keep policy at the level of platitudes, lest detail sour their new friendship.
But if the Coalition is serious about surviving, then some details and compromises must be eked out. On this, Mr Cameron has one major advantage: he knows that the public is not exactly overstuffed with Europhiles, so it will be in the Lib Dems’ electoral interests to give ground. It could well be that Nick Clegg has to consider Mr Hague’s eventual ideas for repatriation, after all.