Analysis: Why the battered coalition can’t go on like this

The timing of the Eastleigh by-election couldn't be worse for a government suffering a horrible start to 2013. Less than a month has passed since David Cameron and Nick Clegg injected some much-needed direction into the ailing coalition. But the temporary morale boost from the midterm review already seems to have faded into the past. This year has seen a succession of policy nightmares embattle the unity and sense of purpose of this government. The coalition, an unwieldy vessel at the best of times, is being battered by a perfect storm. Life in government for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has never been harder.

The problem is one of instinct. Across three very different issues, the Tory and Lib Dem mindsets have been fundamentally at odds. If life was like this all the time, this government simply couldn't function. They can't go on like this.

First came David Cameron's EU speech. After so many months of delays and buildup, the anticipation before this major reworking has never been more intense. Regrettable, then, that the European question is one of just three issues on which the Tories and Lib Dems agreed to disagree in 2010. These two parties approach the continent with completely different mindsets, one instinctively positive and the other deeply suspicious. Cameron got a lot of headlines for his referendum promise, but the Lib Dems attacked it outright. Clegg dismissed the idea and the party's backbench foreign affairs spokesperson, Martin Horwood, called Cameron "crazy". An inauspicious start to the coalition's third full calendar year, then.

Disagreements over Europe were dwarfed by the outbreak of acrimony which followed. As late as Christmas the Conservatives couldn't quite believe the Lib Dems would really follow up their threat of blocking boundary changes. Tory activists all knew of the importance the reform had for the 2015 general election, when the extra 20 seats the changes would hand Cameron could make the difference between a hung parliament and an overall majority. So when push came to shove, and the Lib Dems shoved, the bitterness from the Tory backbenches was overwhelming. "Fury" was the way one seething Conservative MP summed it up. Their views of their coalition partners have quickly reverted to hostility, conditioned by years of Lib Dem dirty tricks on the doorstep. The Tory instinct is to distrust Lib Dems as unprincipled and dishonourable.  That view now dominates their thinking of their partners in power.

Gay marriage completes our trio of ill feeling. Granting a free vote to avoid Cabinet resignations has merely opened a window on the true extent to which the issue has divided the Conservative party. It is torn between the detoxifying view which brought Cameron to power and its reflex suspicion of change, never more potent than on an issue as hallowed by the ages as marriage. Instead of tax breaks for heterosexual couples, Tories are being asked to hand homosexual ones the same standing. A majority of Conservative backbenchers simply cannot stand this – and on yet another issue will once again be going through different division lobbies to the coalition's ministers.

There is more to the coalition's troubles than just an unfortunately timed run of divisive policy issues. January also saw the unravelling of the one issue on which the Tories and Lib Dems do agree pick up pace. GDP growth figures have turned negative once again, raising the spectre of an unprecedented triple-dip recession and leading experts to call the coalition's uncompromising approach into question once more. Ministers are too tightly bound into Plan A for wriggle room, but the party's activists are starting to wonder whether there is any way the squeeze of spending cuts can be alleviated. This nagging undercurrent of doubt is not going to make the coalition any more stable.

What a mess – and what appalling timing for a Tory-Lib Dem by-election in which all the antagonisms, tensions and spite of 2013 can be poured. When they sit on the same benches in the Commons, jeering Ed Miliband together in prime minister's questions, the coalition has some semblance of unity. When Conservative and Liberal Democrat activists confront each other in what is set to be a tough by-election battle, the idea of coalition unity will be forgotten altogether.

Eastleigh, not the coalition's troubles in Westminster, is the real perfect storm for Cameron and Clegg. It is a Tory target, defended by a party whose MP has been disgraced and whose leader is the subject of national ridicule. It is also a seat where Lib Dems are strong incumbents and hold the vast majority of seats on the local council. The majority, over 3,000, is not negligible. And Lib Dems, having lost the Saddleworth by-election in January 2011 after the fall of Labour's Phil Woolas, know scandal does not necessarily guarantee defeat.

This will be a contest without mercy, a straightforward fight between two parties who have been desperate to land a heavy blow on the other for months. After 2013's terrible start, the Eastleigh by-election is going to be a bruising affair. It will feel like the coalition never existed at all.

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