Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Tories prepare to rebuild bridges

David Cameron leaves a polling station in Westminster, after casting his vote (PA)
David Cameron leaves a polling station in Westminster, after casting his vote (PA)
Nick Clegg leaves a polling station in his Sheffield constituency (PA)
Ed Miliband arrives at Parliament Hill School polling station in London with his partner Justine Thornton (PA)

Tory ministers are preparing to rebuild bridges with Liberal Democrat colleagues after a bruising referendum campaign which has threatened to strain tensions within the coalition to breaking point.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's Lib Dems look set to be the big losers in what is the biggest electoral test for the coalition since it was formed a year ago.

The final opinion polls suggested the referendum on adopting the alternative vote (AV) system for Westminster elections - which the Lib Dems strongly support - was heading for an overwhelming defeat for the Yes campaign when the result is announced.

At the same time the Lib Dems are braced for heavy losses across a swathe of elections for English local authorities and the devolved legislatures for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Voting in his Sheffield constituency, Mr Clegg said: "Lots of people have got, obviously, questions and some people have got objections to what the Government is having to do. "But I think most people - the vast majority of people - accept that we're having to do a difficult job in difficult circumstances and that we're trying do it as fairly and compassionately and responsibly as possible."

In the Commons, Labour MPs mocked the Lib Dem leader, suggesting the Yes campaign had suffered from a "dead Clegg bounce" as a result of his unpopularity.

The shadow leader of the House, Hilary Benn, said there had been a "breakdown of collective Cabinet responsibility" in the coalition after Lib Dem Energy Secretary Chris Huhne angrily confronted David Cameron over the tactics of the Conservative-funded No campaign.

Mr Huhne's outburst at Tuesday's weekly Cabinet meeting brought to a head weeks of simmering anger among Lib Dems as it became clear that the referendum was heading for a No vote. Many in the party believe Mr Cameron broke a private assurance that he would not campaign strongly for a No vote.

Conservative Leader of the Commons Sir George Young acknowledged that there were "tensions" between the coalition partners, but insisted that they were nothing like as bad as those which racked Labour during the Blair-Brown years.

"The truth is that the tensions between the one party opposite are much more damaging than the understandable tensions between two parties during a referendum campaign and local elections," he said. "But from next week we will be back in business, working together in the national interest, to get the economy back on its feet. Our divisions will heal but theirs never will."

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