Some Conservative MPs were unimpressed by the recent claim that David Cameron wants the next Conservative manifesto to rule out a second coalition with the Liberal Democrats. They saw it as a clumsy attempt by the leadership to suggest that it is really on their side. The view of these MPs was: if the Prime Minister really doesn’t like the Liberal Democrats, could we see some action now, please, rather than promises for later?
Yesterday’s Cabinet row over whether the Queen’s Speech should contain an In/Out referendum bill is likely to get even more of a raspberry. Tory MPs know all too well that there is no chance whatsoever of the Liberal Democrats conceding one – so the only point of raising it in Cabinet was to leak the news afterwards. Furthermore, one source claims that George Osborne didn’t push the issue all that hard, though there was certainly a discussion.
That the In/Out referendum now has totemic significance for the Conservative Party, however, is confirmed by our most recent survey of party members. We asked whether an In/Out Referendum should be a “red line” in any Coalition negotiations after the 2015 general election? The result was emphatic. 81 per cent of Party member respondents said yes. 13 per cent said no. This is in step with our poll last September which found that the referendum and a renegotiation is members’ top red line.
If Cameron falls short of a majority in 2015 and tries to form a Government, some Tory backbenchers would call on him to quit – but most, I think, would back a Cameron-led Conservative minority Government which would put an In/Out referendum bill before Parliament. But I believe they wouldn’t tolerate a second coalition with the Liberal Democrats of which a condition was dropping that referendum. And what restrictions would Clegg seek to place on Cameron over renegotiation?
All in all, it is possible to imagine a second Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition after 2015, but our poll is a reminder of why the odds on one being formed look increasingly long.