Tom Peterkin: Tories’ self-belief strains coalition

Running like an ever-rolling stream through the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham has been dig after dig at the Liberal Democrats.

London mayor Boris Johnson was damning when he delivered a cruel verdict on some of his opponents. Picture: Getty

The snide remarks cast at the poor old Lib Dems have been unceasing and a reminder – if any were needed – that politics can be a dirty business.

Their frequency and venom was such that at times it was easy to forget that the Tories are actually still in coalition with Nick Clegg’s party.

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The coalition may still be in existence, but seven months out from the General Election, both parties are miles away from the Rose Garden love-in which marked their journey into government together four years ago.

In her speech, Home Secretary Theresa May said the Lib Dems were “outrageously irresponsible” for blocking legislation designed to give police more powers to tackle terrorism.

In his inimitable style, London mayor Boris Johnson was less specific but equally damning when he delivered a cruel verdict on some of his opponents.

“So let’s leave Ed Balls [shadow chancellor] to his football practice; and let’s leave Ed Miliband [Labour leader] to master the art of the bacon sarnie; and let’s leave the Clegger to get on with whatever it is he does,” Johnson said to much laughter from the audience.

Of course, the Clegger would be entirely justified in replying that one of the things he has been doing is keeping the Tories in power.

Yesterday morning there was no let-up for the junior coalition partners. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was the latest Tory to have a go at them.

Praising David Cameron for securing European Union reform and preventing more powers going to Brussels, Hammond remarked it had been achieved “in coalition with the most Brussels-loving bunch of Europhiles you could ever wish to meet”.

Of course, there are many Lib Dems who would be proud to be called Europhiles. But in present company it was an insult.

Just think what could be achieved without being in a forced marriage with Clegg & Co, was Hammond’s message.

It was a tactic that one Tory strategist described as creating “clear yellow water” between the Conservatives and their partners.

At a conference that has been notable for the rising stock of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson and a Prime Minister’s speech that outshone Ed Miliband’s lamentable one in Manchester last week, Lib Dem bashing has been a quietly relentless feature.

The Tories are keen to portray next May as a straight fight between Cameron and Miliband. Despite the distraction of Ukip and with care being taken to dismiss the Lib Dems, it is a fight they believe they can win.