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Coalition strains on display as AV row turns nasty

The strained relations between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have reached a new low amid an increasingly bitter campaign ahead of next month's referendum on the voting system.

Doubts were expressed about whether the coalition would last as planned until 2015 after Nick Clegg launched his strongest attack on the Tory-led No campaign and did not exempt David Cameron from criticism.

Officially, both parties insisted it will be “business as usual” inside the Government after the May 5 referendum, but insiders believe the scars from the referendum battle will mean that the relationship between the coalition partners will never be the same again.

The Liberal Democrats raised the stakes on Sunday as they sought to combat what Mr Clegg called the “lies, misinformation and deceit” of the No camp.

He said that opponents of the alternative vote (AV), including Mr Cameron, were the “death rattle of a right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are”.

Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, will complain to the Electoral Commission about “untruths” pumped out by the No campaign.

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Energy and Climate Change Secretary, suggested his party might sue the No to AV organisation unless it retracted its claims about AV — including a statement that it would mean spending £135m on electronic vote-counting machines.

He warned that the credibility of Mr Cameron, Chancellor, George Osborne and Foreign |Secretary, William Hague would |be undermined unless the |allegations were withdrawn. “My colleague Simon Hughes is talking about getting the Electoral Commission to look at this — so they'd better come clean fast.”

Mr Huhne refused to say whether he might resign from the Cabinet over the AV row.

Tories and Liberal Dems expected the two parties to diverge ahead of May 5, when they will do battle in elections to English councils, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly as well as on opposite sides of the AV campaign.

But the acrimony of the battle over voting reform has surprised both sides.

“We didn't think it would get this nasty. It's a learning curve for both of us,” one source said.

“If anything, the coalition had worked so well that there were fears that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg were a bit too close for their parties own good.”

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