The British electorate (or more accurately, an unsatisfactorily small proportion of it) seems likely to have delivered a clear, albeit far from overwhelming, rejection of a change to AV in the Referendum on which the Lib Dems set such store in negotiating the Coalition Agreement last May. That much, at least, could have been predicted.
Probably not predicted though, was the sheer scale of personal acrimony between some of the Coalition “partners” as the prospect of a “Yes” vote progressively receded: plus the way this in turn brought to the fore the ill-disguised and simmering resentments of Cable and Huhne, not to mention the latter’s leadership ambitions. Huhne in particular seemed determined to walk the tightrope stretched precariously above martyrdom in the cause of the grassroots - or more likely in the cause of his own future status – even to the extent of directly and aggressively challenging Cameron in Cabinet. Osborne’s devastating put down – “This is the Cabinet, not some sub-Paxman interview” – is all the more humiliating for having been leaked almost immediately.
Clegg meanwhile has emerged much diminished: his glittering Coalition prize of potential electoral reform is in tatters, his local government base has been decimated, he’s comparatively isolated from the political space occupied by the majority of his party, and his leadership is now assumed to be living on borrowed time.
This, then, is the landscape that Cameron will survey this Friday morning. It isn’t an especially congenial vista. Propping up Clegg in compensation by trimming even more Lib Dem-wards to accommodate their ruffled feelings will further alienate the considerable body of the Conservatives who recently sent him a clear message that enough, if not too many, concessions have been made already: on the other hand, dealing properly with the revolt against collective responsibility and open insubordination around his Cabinet table risks exacerbating the fragility of the Coalition.
But my opinion is that it’s the latter direction he must go in. One or two sacrifices are going to have to be offered to neutralise the threats, which are not about to disappear agreeably if the sacrifices are not made.
That means, first and foremost, sacking Huhne – even if he hasn’t resigned by then, which looks increasingly likely – if for no other reason than pour encourager les autres: he is a political liability and a governmental nightmare, increasingly devoid of any credibility as a minister who can protect and secure Britain’s future energy needs for its recovering economy. Whether by dismissal or resignation, the Cabinet and the Government will be better without him.
It means taking the opportunity thereby presented to bring David Laws back into Government, ideally as Business Secretary, and re-shuffling Cable to a post where his incipient leftism is less of a hindrance. Phillip Hammond, meanwhile, who undoubtedly lost out in the Coalition posts carve-up, should be given the Energy brief and told unequivocally to concentrate on revitalising our oil, gas and nuclear procurement.
Cable, an insufferably vain man, is I suspect too fond of the publicity, trappings and kudos of office to contemplate refusal-by-resignation, so the principal problematic consequence becomes the likely conduct of an ex-ministerial Huhne. But here Cameron should recall that fortune favours the brave: yes, an anti-Clegg caucus is likely to coalesce round Huhne on the back benches, but what options does it realistically have? If Clegg is deposed as Leader, resulting in a General Election, firstly the Lib Dems are financially are in no position to fight one, and secondly they would be virtually annihilated. Even Huhne might balk at having his first achievement become leading his party back to its 1980s level of oblivion.
So Cameron should seize the moment and not be pusillanimous: he will have succeeded in rescuing the AV Referendum issue from an inauspicious start, and that should encourage him to be bold. Carpe diem.