by Stephen Tall on April 25, 2011
Lib Dem cabinet minister Chris Huhne has ratcheted up the war of words against the Tories ahead of next week’s AV referendum, suggesting legal action might be necessary to stop Coalition colleagues spreading untruths. Today’s Guardian reports:
Huhne said the claims made by David Cameron, George Osborne and other Tories undermined their credibility. He is concerned about two claims made by the Conservatives – that a move to AV will need new counting machines, and so cost as much as £250m, and that it will favour extremist parties. He said: “If they don’t come clean on this, I am sure the law courts will. Australia’s used [AV] for 80 years without ever using voting machines. If they can’t substantiate that, there’s simple legal redress. They had better come clean pretty fast.” …
Huhne told the BBC: “It is frankly worrying if you have colleagues, who you have respected and who you have worked well with, who are making claims which have no foundation in truth whatsoever. If they don’t come clean on this, I am sure the law courts will. It is going to undermine the credibility of colleague ministers – the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer and the foreign secretary [William Hague] – if they use repeatedly allegations that have no foundation in truth whatsoever.
“That is not good for the coalition. We have a job to do in the coalition government to clean up the mess we have inherited at the time of the last election. It is going to be a lot more difficult if you don’t have the same respect for colleagues because, frankly, they have departed so far from the foundations of truth in an election campaign.”
There are two possible interpretations of this latest spat:
1) That what we are seeing is the beginning of the end of the Coalition, that the Lib Dems and Tories, never natural bed-fellows, are living out the inevitable demise of their experiment. In this version of events, the fury of Chris Huhne, more moderately echoed in recent days by Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes and Vince Cable, is evidence of a very real schism.
2) That this is simply the latest expression of pre-election posturing, with Lib Dems and Tories licensed for a limited period to emerge from Coalition purdah and revert to ‘politics as normal’. This is the view I put forward yesterday on Lib Dem Voice here. I have been genuinely surprised by the gullible credulity of the news media in treating these stories as evidence of Coalition-ending rifts: for such a cynical professions, political journalists can sometimes be stunningly naive.
In taking the view that Scenario 2, above, is the accurate version, I’m not suggesting Chris Huhne’s anger is fake: I have no doubt that his outrage at the untruths spouted by Tories like Baroness Warsi is for real. I also don’t doubt that there has been very real concern in Lib Dem quarters at the Tory-funded anti-AV campaign’s deeply personalised and vitriolic focus on Nick Clegg.
But equally I have n doubt that there has been agreement right at the very top that the pre-election period is a time when Lib Dems and Tories can vent their pent-up frustration at the constraints of Coalition, safe in the knowledge the Coalition is secure, and that the two parties are going to continue working together for years t come.