Coalition cracks: is Cameron secretly happy about it?

Twin attacks on Tory policy by Clegg and Cable make it easier for PM to please his backbenchers

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:28 ON Tue 7 Jan 2014

VINCE CABLE is pouring cold water over David Cameron’s key pledge to cut immigration to fewer than 100,000 a year just 24 hours after Nick Clegg attacked George Osborne’s plans for a further massive cut in welfare spending. 

The twin Lib Dem attacks on two key planks in Cameron’s election platform have sparked speculation at Westminster that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are deliberately driving a wedge between the Tories and the Lib Dems, raising fresh questions over whether the coalition can last until the general election.

Cable says in a documentary by BBC political editor Nick Robinson on immigration to be screened tonight that it is "not sensible to have an arbitrary cap" on net migration because the government cannot control the numbers coming from the EU.

"The idea it should come down to 100,000 is something the Liberal Democrats have never signed up to because we simply regard it as impractical," says the Business Secretary.

Cable is a long-term critic of the Tory immigration curbs because he believes they will stop skilled workers coming to Britain and damage the country’s competitiveness. But he knows that the immigration target is absolutely central to Cameron’s offer to the thousands of core Tory voters who have been deserting in droves to Ukip.

Two new polls both put the Lib Dems on a lowly eight per cent, while Nigel Farage's anti-EU Ukip is consistently beating the Lib Dems at 16 per cent.

As for the welfare issue, as I reported yesterday Osborne risked a split with both Nick Clegg and fellow Tory Iain Duncan Smith by suggesting there must be deeper welfare cuts after the next general election. 

The Times and The Guardian both splashed on the rift with IDS today but there was already bad blood between the two men, caused by the claim in the book In It Together by Matthew d’Ancona that Osborne once said about IDS: "He opposes every cut… You see Iain giving presentations and realise he’s just not clever enough."

Journalists summoned to Nick Clegg's press conference yesterday were more surprised by the strength of the Lib Dem leader's attack on Osborne. Clegg described the measures as a “monumental mistake” and said the Conservatives would be imposing “cuts for cuts’ sake” – a gift for Labour propagandists.

“On the Right, you’ve got a Conservative Party now who are driven, it seems to me, by two very clear ideological impulses,” Clegg said. “One is to remorselessly pare back the state, for ideological reasons, just cut back the state.

“Secondly, and I think they are making a monumental mistake in doing so, they have said that the only section of society which will bear the burden of further fiscal consolidation are the working-age poor — those dependent on welfare.”

The Lib Dems – on their current poll position – are on course to get trounced in the May local elections. They would normally be expected to do well in local government where they organise well, but Clegg’s readiness to prop up Cameron has alienated Lib Dem voters, and because they are seen as Europhiles, they are almost certain to come fourth in the European elections.

Clegg has earned such pariah status that Labour leader Ed Miliband is determined keep his distance from the Lib Dem leader to stop him spoiling the One Nation Labour brand (though he says nice things about Cable, a former Labour councillor). That could change immediately after the general election, if the Lib Dems hold the balance of power again, but it is likely Miliband would demand Clegg’s head as the price for sharing power.

There is already a strategy argument going on within the Tory Party about how long Cameron should hold the coalition together before making a break with Clegg and running the country on a minority government.

Cameron’s instinct is to keep the alliance going until the election campaign proper begins in April 2015. But some of his MPs favour a much earlier break to enable them to show their Tory supporters they have not been infected with rising damp by the soggy Liberal Democrats.

Being attacked by Clegg and Cable makes Cameron’s job of pulling his own party together far easier - so the PM might secretly welcome the noises off caused by Clegg and Cable. The Business Secretary, it should be remembered, is a favourite Tory hate figure: he was voted 'Yellow Bastard of the Year' in a straw poll of Tory supporters by the grassroots website, ConservativeHome.

The coalition is in for a battering – and it’s just a question of time before it cracks.

'The Truth About Immigration', BBC2, 9.30 pm, Tuesday 7 January.  · 

Disqus - noscript

"The coalition is in for a battering – and it’s just a question of time before it cracks."

Then it's back to Labour who are even worse.