This was season one, episode one of the David and Nick show. As they answered questions in the garden that had magically appeared in Downing Street the night before, the two men looked like a pair of sixth-formers: slightly over-excited, perhaps slightly smug, a little naïve, very funny. They seemed to be relishing an instant rapport, like two strangers who can already tell they might be best friends, filled to the brim by just how audacious they have been. Someone had arranged for the sun to briefly shine. Birds were audibly singing.
One cheeky reporter recalled Cameron’s favourite political joke—“Nick Clegg,” the Tory leader had simply said, some years ago. A crease appeared on Clegg’s youthful forehead: “Did you say that?” he asked. Cameron sheepishly acknowledged the insult. Clegg pretended to storm off. Cameron called out in mock despair: “Come baaack!”
We know they have thicker skins than they pretend. Just a week ago, the leader of the Liberal Democrats accused Cameron of “breathtaking arrogance,” of associating himself with “homophobes and racists.” Cameron, meanwhile, poured scorn on the idea that a hung parliament and a coalition government could somehow be in any way politically desirable.
There are a few narratives into which the formation of this coalition government might fit. The most interesting is to do with the changing nature of the Liberal Democrats’ self-awareness as a third force in British politics. Nick Clegg’s election to party leadership could now be seen historically as the moment where an alliance with the leftish elements of the Conservative party became a possibility, or even a probability. It could also be remembered as the first morph in the Lib Dems’ transformation into a party very like the German Free Democratic party. There are some in the party who have leaned that way for many years, and at least two of them are now in the cabinet.
Much is now being made of the dangers of internal opposition to this coalition. How will the Iraq-war-protesting, nuclear-power-opposing, animal-rights-fetishising Lib Dem grassroots put up with the immigrant-bashing, climate-change-sceptical, fox-hunting Conservative membership? These caricatures are automatic but fatuous. In fact, the Lib Dem members…