David Maddox: With older Lib Dems pulling the coalition apart, Clegg’s only hope is for an upturn in the economy

WHEN the Liberal Democrats made their fateful coalition pact in May 2010 what surprised many – despite the mathematical obviousness of the choice – was how quickly they plumped for the Tories.

The natural inclination of most Lib Dems is leftish not rightish and now over the weekend it has become obvious that after two years of pain and little gain that parts of the leadership is returning to type.

In doing so the likes of Vince Cable and Sir Menzies Campbell, who have reportedly both opened talks with Labour, are following where much of the battered and bruised membership has already gone. The NHS rebellion and the attempt by the party foot soldiers to derail it was the sign that they had had enough, perhaps particularly after the tuition fee betrayal.

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But what we are also seeing now is a struggle for the soul of the party between the old guard of former Labour members (Cable) or friends of Labour (Campbell) and the frankly more professional less idealist new generation led by Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. It is interesting that another former Labour/ SDP member Baroness Shirley Williams effectively led the NHS membership rebellion.

There is no doubt at the moment who is winning. The old lefties have the members behind them and the right-wing backbench Tories hate the Lib Dems so much that nobody could imagine this coalition going on beyond the election in 2015.

On the other hand it is clear that the natural inclination of the likes of Clegg and Alexander is much more towards a centrist Tory position, particularly now that the issue of Europe and euro membership has to a certain degree been removed by the economic crisis.

The real question now is whether these talks will end up with something concrete with Labour sooner rather than later and in effect bring down a coalition which is looking far from steady. The plethora of U-turns last week, especially over the Budget, has badly weakened Cameron and Osborne so pressure is coming from the Tory side too.

The only hope for Clegg and Alexander is that the coalition can hold on long enough for the economy to begin to recover enough to justify what they did and take that into the next election. However, presupposes there will be much of a recovery before 2015.

Meanwhile, Cable, Campbell and Williams apparently have no qualms in undermining the coalition further.

And while there is a generational split there are also lefty idealists and those who would like to use those feelings of discontent in the party to help fulfil their personal ambition.

So while the likes of Cable and Campbell lead the way, behind them will be party president Tim Farron or former cabinet member Chris Huhne, whose career is on hold pending the court case into speeding points, waiting to step in and lead the party back to Labour or obscurity.

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