• First full joint session of coalition cabinet members
• Fears for future as Clegg's party nosedives in polls
Conservative and Liberal Democrat cabinet members will meet tomorrow at Chequers for their first full joint political session, facing dramatically different poll ratings which, if they persist, could fuel calls from the Lib Dem rank and file to pull out of the coalition.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg will respond to the disparity by insisting that the two parties will ultimately benefit by sticking together through to a 2015 election, but the two men will look at fresh ways of raising the profile of the Lib Dems, as well as agreeing a strategy for co-ordinated policy announcements at their two party conferences this autumn.
It is now likely that only a few Tory coalition ministers will attend the Lib Dem conference, and vice versa. Liberal Democrat ministers are to be given licence to make agreed coalition policy announcements in their ministerial portfolios.
The coalition wants to stress the two parties have complementary ideas, and it has proved in its first two months to be an effective body capable of policy disagreements without collapsing into the psychodrama that dragged Labour down.
Cameron is securing levels of support akin to a political honeymoon but Clegg, on current trends, is heading for electoral Siberia. The Lib Dems polled only 13% in the YouGov tracker poll on Wednesday. On a uniform swing this would reduce them to a rump of no more than 16 seats.
The prime minister, aware of the irony of being concerned at his own party's 44% poll standing, has nevertheless expressed concern about the divergence, knowing that if the disparity starts to widen, or even just persists, it could destabilise the coalition well before it is ready to go to the polls. The Liberal Democrats have normally explained their low polling outside an election period by arguing their profile diminishes as the third party, but this excuse no longer applies. Efforts are being made to raise the profile of party spokesmen outside the cabinet to ensure the party has an independent voice.
Most Lib Dems believe they made real policy gains in the first 100 days of the coalition, and the party headquarters yesterday put out an impressively long list of its achievements – backed by a statement from its deputy leader, Simon Hughes, saying the party is moving Britain every day towards a more liberal future.
Julian Astle, director of the centre-left Centreforum thinktank, said: "The divergence is not that surprising. When everything in British politics is dominated by the deficit, and the left is queasy about cuts, left support for the coalition is going to reduce."
Astle argues the two parties are developing an ideological bond around a new relationship between individual and state, which in the end will prove to be a powerful glue to keep them together.
"As soon as Clegg joined with the Tories, it was clear the party can only play it long. My guess is the polls are going to get worse, and it may last a long time. The party is going to have to grit its teeth and say at the next election: 'Yes it hurt, but yes it worked.'"
Lib Dem MPs fear they will lose seats to Labour in the north at the next election and struggle even to mount a coherent argument as to why it is necessary to vote Liberal Democrat in Tory-held seats.
Clegg believes that so long as Labour is led by "deficit deniers", it will never gain electoral credibility. But he knows he faces a politically fraught autumn spending review, difficult local elections in May and a referendum on the voting system.
Paul Goodman, page 28
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016