Vince Cable has reignited one of the questions that has dogged the coalition since it formed: when will it split up? Talking to BBC 5 Live’s John Pienaar, the business secretary said:
Everybody involved knows that before the next general election the two parties will have to establish their own separate platforms and identity.
But how that disengagement takes place, over what time period is very much an issue for the future, certainly not something we’re talking about at the moment.
The question is, what exactly does Cable mean by “disengagement”?
One of Nick Clegg’s former advisers used to explain his theory of “differentiation”, which would see the two coalition parties increasingly stress their differences during the course of the parliament. We can see that at the moment with issues like the Beecroft report, which Cable is strongly opposing.
Does “disengagement” mean anything more, and specifically the end of the coalition? One reason to think it might that he was previously caught by Telegraph journalists saying:
I have a nuclear option; it’s like fighting a war. They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don’t have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far then I can walk out and bring the government down and they know that.
But Cable didn’t repeat anything like those words to Pienaar. And there’s another reason to think that “disengagement” does not mean splitting up here. One senior Lib Dem recently explained privately like this:
What would be the point of splitting up the coalition? It would make it seem like we had been duped by the Tories all along, and would only give extra fuel to those who say we never should have signed up to it in the first place. It would also kill the reputation we are trying to build for being a responsible party of government.
There is one option that could avoid these problems however: the Lib Dems could decide that something the Tories try to do is so heinous that they declare they have no option but to leave government.
This however relies on a situation arising which allows them to withdraw while still keeping their credibility. And if that is their plan, it appears to be heavily reliant on the chance of those circumstances arising.