By Paul Goodman
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As soon as Nick Clegg announced last summer, in the wake of the collapse of Lords reform, that the Liberal Democrats would about-turn on the boundary review, I wrote that his prospects of winning a majority in 2015 were vanishing, that he would now hope to re-form the Coalition after the next election, and that his leadership was now at risk. Nothing since has happened to make me change my mind – if anything, events have made a challenge more likely. Risk is not certainty, and my best guess is that there is only a 25% per cent chance of a leadership ballot after the local elections, but is is impossible to make an accurate assessment.
The Adam Afriyie story identified only one of a number of plots that are swirling round Westminster. It is a mistake to believe that what is needed to trigger a ballot is the click of computer mouse in some Portcullis House office, ordering 46 MP suicide bombers to go over the top, and send in letters demanding a ballot to Graham Brady. If events take on a momentum of their own, and enough of the Judean People's Fronts and People's Fronts of Judea on the Tory backbenches are galvanised into life, Brady will suddenly emerge to declare a contest. It is worth considering the news this morning in the light of that possibility.
Nick Clegg has played an important part in blocking Michael Gove's EBac, news of the abandonment of which is carried in today's Independent (though the Deputy Prime Minister was not its only opponent, and the Education Secretary will announce substantial reforms to GCSEs today). The Liberal Democrats have also let it be known this morning that they have left their mark on Government plans for childcare vouchers. And later today, Nick Clegg will attack his Coalition partner for stopping a mansion tax. Grant Shapps has already hit back. Why this open warfare? Because the date of the Eastleigh by-election has been announced – February 28.
There have been worse-than-usual relations between the Coalition partners before: during the AV referendum campaign, over the NHS bill, on Lords reform and Commons boundaries. But none of these dramas have coincided with a by-election in a very tight Conservative-LibDem marginal. Expect much, much more of the same as the media pile in, the two parties rail and counter-rail against each other in Hampshire, and speeches and votes turn nasty in the Commons. If the Liberal Democrats don't win, the question will be: if Clegg can't hold Eastleigh, where his party has a near-monopoly on the local council, what can it hold?
But the question for Cameron is even more pressing. After all, the Liberal Democrats have shown impressive discipline since the last election, while the Tories, as Peter Oborne argues this morning, seem to be almost in a state of existential crisis. The Prime Minister's problems are many, and this site has tried to distinguish between those which are his fault and those which are not. But they essentially boil down to a stark fact: he isn't a winner. He failed to gain a majority in 2010. It is against this background that – if Francis Maude's atrocious television performance two days ago is anything to go by – he has apparently decided to wage a kulturkampf within his own party.
That question will be: if Cameron can't win in Eastleigh, with the Liberal Democrat national poll ratings having collapsed, where can he win? The question is perhaps unfair, given that yellow strength on the ground. But be sure that Tory backbenchers will ask it if he doesn't – loudly.