We have heard a lot on Nick Clegg’s “muscular liberalism” in recent weeks as the Lib Dem leader endeavours to show a bit of fight following his party’s local election drubbing. Now the fall-out of the Tories’ triumph on May 6 is also beginning to be felt.
On two occasions this week, emboldened Conservative MPs have threatened to give the leadership a bloody nose. On Tuesday, the government was forced to implement a three-line whip and it was behind a wrecking amendement to see off eurosceptics’ attempts to force the UK to oppose further use of the eurozone bail-out mechanism as it stands. In the end, the government won the day — but 46 MPS (29 Tories) voted against.
“The government could have been defeated if Labour had not abstained,” said one Tory eurosceptic after the vote. “This shows that they can’t assume a majority on European issues.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Tory MP Nick de Bois muscled in on the NHS. Rebutting Nick Clegg’s efforts to take leadership over (and credit for) the government’s ’listening exercise’ on health reform, the backbencher issued a call to arms to colleagues.
“As you are no doubt aware, there has been widespread media coverage during the ‘pause’ about the Government’s NHS reforms. Coverage has suggested rather concerning change, coming not from within our own ranks but from amongst our coalition partners,” he wrote.
“It is absolutely vital that Conservative backbenchers are able to input into this process, and that our views are not ignored,” he added, setting down a series of Tory red lines: from insistence that the GP commissioning constoria be in place by 2013 to an opening up of the market to ensure patients can be treated at any qualified provider.
Some Tories are hoping a deal between Clegg and Cameron can be thrashed out when parliament returns from its break, as they batted away Clegg’s off-message assertion that the NHS bill would have go back to committee stage.
But Tory red lines are criss-crossing over Lib Dem demands and neither side are in the mood for compromise. The time bombs set ticking in the wake of the local elections look about ready to start going off.