David Cameron ordered Tory cabinet ministers to avoid signs of triumphalism after the prime minister led his party to a strong performance in local elections in England and played a decisive role in winning the AV referendum. No 10 sent a message to ministers to avoid gloating as the Conservatives sought to repair relations with the Liberal Democrats, who are enraged by the way the No to AV campaign depicted Nick Clegg as untrustworthy.
Behind the scenes, Tories were ecstatic. One ministerial source said: “Cameron is lord of all he surveys. He finally got a grip of the referendum campaign and ended all the muttering on the Tory right.” The prime minister adopted a different tone as he went out of his way to congratulate the Lib Dems for their work in the coalition when he paid an early morning visit to Tory HQ before heading to Birmingham for his latest meeting in the government’s NHS “listening exercise”.
He said: “I am absolutely committed to make this coalition government, which I believe is good for Britain, work for the full five years of this term. It is then that I believe the coalition and its parties will be judged by the electorate. But I would pay tribute to the work that Liberal Democrats have done, and are doing, in this coalition and will go on doing, because we are absolutely committed to make sure it works hard for the people of Britain.”
The Tory party was keen to point out Labour’s poor performance in Scotland and a weaker than expected showing in England, but silent on the Lib Dem performance. They declined to mention 11 gains on North Norfolk council, where the Lib Dems had 12 losses. This will be a blow to Norman Lamb, Clegg’s senior parliamentary adviser, who used Lib Dem success there to capture a safe parliamentary seat from the Tories in 2001.
The Tories had expected losses in the English council elections because the same set of seats were last contested in 2007, when Cameron secured 40% of the vote. The party notched up modest net gains, largely a result of the collapse of the Lib Dem vote. There had been fears on the Tory right that the yes campaign could win the referendum after Cameron initially indicated he would not play a central role in the no campaign. These fears evaporated overnight.
One Tory commentator said: “Cameron is the luckiest man alive. He was lucky to face David Davis in the Tory leadership campaign, he was lucky when Brown didn’t call an election in 2007, he was lucky when Clegg didn’t have enough votes to form a coalition with Labour last year and now he is lucky the Lib Dems are taking all the flak in the coalition.
“His biggest problem was conceding a referendum … to the Lib Dems which he did in very dodgy circumstances. He sold something to the 1922 Committee – that Labour had offered AV without a referendum – that turned out not to be true. But he pulled off victory and all credit to him.”
One cabinet minister said: “These elections were always going to be difficult – doubly difficult because these were really tough local elections and because on AV we agreed to disagree in the coalition on day one. But I am optimistic you will see the mettle of the coalition showing through when it is back to business on Monday.”
There was one ominous sign for the Conservatives. They beat the Lib Dems into third place in Scotland but won only three constituency seats at Holyrood, raising questions about their ability to form an overall majority at Westminster if they cannot approach double figures in Scotland.
Nicholas Watt, the Guardian