By Tim Montgomerie
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Liam Fox gave an interview to today's Sunday Telegraph in which he implied that the Liberal Democrats should be more modest in their expectations and Cameron should be more ambitious with his. "They have to remember," said the former Defence Secretary, "that they are a sixth of the Coalition, not half the Coalition". Over on Coffee House Fraser Nelson's message is similar. Underneath a picture of Mr Clegg that presents the Deputy PM as less than scary, Fraser writes:
"The Lib Dems have just 8% of the seats in parliament and about 10% of the current popular support. Cameron ought to remember this when deciding the balance of power within government."
A Conservative Cabinet minister has telephoned me this afternoon to strike back at this assertiveness and to do so in forthright terms. "The Lib Dems may only have one-sixth of the MPs," they said, "but without them we have no majority… They own 100% of the majority. And they've taken at least 50% of the political pain of the last two years. For at least two more years their problems are our problems or the government dies. Liam was a lambkin when he sat around the Cabinet table, rarely challenging the Lib Dems. Now, off the frontbench, he's found his foxy voice again. He knew when he was in the tent that progress could only happen by negotiation and his advocacy of confrontationalism now is not winning him friends among the grown-ups." Ouch.
I don't much enjoy the realities of Coalition and wish it hadn't been formed but there's a good case for conceding that now it exists that it will prosper more by bargaining than by menace. That bargaining shouldn't necessarily be equal trades – that's where the Tories' numerical strength should be a factor. To be fair to Liam Fox this might be what he's implying… and when you watch Lib Dem ministers like Jeremy Browne on today's Sunday Politics you can still see this Coalition has some potential.
PS LibDemVoice's Stephen Tall has responded to my post about rebooting the Coalition. He's not keen on my suggestion of a second grand bargain and would prefer if the two parties reunited around the theme of reforming capitalism. His words are here.