24 Apr 2011

Coalition cracks widen over AV referendum

As the referendum campaign turns bitter, the gaps in government grow larger – as the Yes camp accuse the No camp of lying and threaten legal action.

It’s been a bad tempered Easter for ministers in the coalition government. Their taste for confrontation with each other is growing, so will they’re be anything left of the government after referendum day?

It is week nine on the Alternative Vote campaign trail, Yes supporters hold an event – which they call a flash mob – in London’s Trafalgar Square, but it’s not exactly unified – a bit like those who run the government.

Coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are the strongest supports of voting reform. But they think that those on the No side, cabinet colleagues included, are employing dirty, rough-house tactics.

In the Independent on Sunday, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg denounced the No camp for its “lies, misinformation and deceit”.

‘Robust debate is normal in British politics… persistent resort to falsehoods is not’ – Chris Huhne

He said he hoped the vote would kill off a “nasty right wing clique” and mentions “David Cameron, Nick Griffin (the BNP chairman) – and whoever leads the Communist Party” as men who are “defending the indefensible.”

The Energy Secretary Chris Huhne is not happy either.

“Robust debate is normal in British politics” he wrote in a letter to the Chancellor George Osborne but “persistent resort to falsehoods is not.”

Britain's PM David Cameron listens as Deputy PM Nick Clegg speaks during their joint news conference at number 10 Downing Street in London (Reuters)

What’s really irritated the Yes camp is a claim by Mr Osborne and co about the costs of an AV system.

Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes said that people from the Prime Minister downwards were making arguments that were clearly not true.

People from the PM downwards make arguments that are clearly not true. He pointed to a No campaign leaflet that said switching to AV would cost £130m more due to electronic vote counting machines.

Simon Hughes said “there will be no electronic vote counting machines in the new system. You count just in the same way”.

The costs of counting votes is just one of several disputes between the two sides Mr Hughes says he’ll talk to the elections regulator about it. Chris Huhne went further today – he’s threatening legal action.

What do the no camp make of it?

Emily Thornburry, Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, said “we all agree that one thing Lib Dems do do, is they fight dirty. So for them to be howling and saying it’s not fight is a bit of a laugh really.”

The wrapping’s come off this Easter the battle more sour than sweet, this ferocity betrays an increasing close fight.

Two weeks ago 40 per cent backed the No campaign – while those supporting yes trailed by 6 points. Later polls showed the No campaign gaining ground – at one point registering 48 per cent.

However, the most recent poll showed a much tighter race – with just two percentage points separating both sides.

AV: to vote Yes or No?

As the date for the referendum on changing the way this country elects government in approaches, Channel 4 News approaches both sides of the debate asking them to make their case for the public's vote on May 5.

AV referendum - why you should vote Yes

AV referendum - why you should vote No

Or if you want to know more about AV, then read our handy guide: Alternative Vote - your questions answered

So where does this leave the coalition with years left to govern?

That Rose Garden moment when Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeared together, is fading into the distance.

The Prime Minister and his Deputy have fallen out – or at least they’re less likely to play tennis with each other in the future. The business of government is going to get tougher, and Cabinet meetings a little more uncomfortable.