IF a week is a long time in politics, then two weeks is twice as long – and the fortnight since this column last appeared seems to have been a particularly lengthy one for Prime Minister David Cameron.
A collective madness has descended upon his party, with rows about Europe and gay marriage punctuated by Cabinet ministers positioning themselves for what many now see as the inevitable post-Cameron succession battle.
Much of this is what Alastair Campbell used to call ‘froth.’ Whatever Michael Gove and Philip Hammond might dream about in bed at night, Mr Cameron is not going to be overthrown as Tory leader before the next election, and if he wins it, this bout of internal rancour will be long forgotten.
And if he loses, or fails again to win an outright majority, he’ll be overthrown anyway – but that’s par for the course for Tory leaders who fail to win elections and nothing that has happened over the past two weeks has altered that underlying reality.
What it may have done, however, is made it rather less likely that he will win in 2015.
Mr Cameron’s once-stated intention to stop his party “banging on about Europe” now seems laughable, while his attempts to detoxify the Tory brand by embracing liberal causes such as same-sex marriage seem only to have alienated his core supporters.
As I wrote in the context of the local election results, the only silver lining for the Prime Minister is that the country still seems less than overwhelmed by the idea of Ed Miliband as his successor.
So long as that remains the case, Mr Cameron may well be able to squeeze the UKIP vote by presenting the 2015 contest as a presidential battle between himself and a man who few voters of a right-wing disposition want to see in 10 Downing Street.
But for me, the most interesting political story of the past fortnight concerned not the fate of Mr Cameron, but the future of the Coalition government which he leads.
It appeared on the front page of The Times a week ago yesterday, and revealed that the Tories are now planning how they would govern without the Liberal Democrats for the last six to ten months of the Parliament.
“We need to have an idea of what we are going to do if at different points it does break up,” a source said.
The paper also quoted a senior Lib Dem as saying that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg needed to act to prevent them “drifting into a four party situation with us as the fourth party.”
For me, this is a story which has been crying out to be written ever since the Coalition was first formed.
As regular readers of this column will know, I have argued from the outset that the political dynamics are such that it will be impossible for the Coalition to survive a full five-year parliamentary term.
It has long been clear that, in order to avoid humiliation in 2015, the Lib Dems will need to start differentiating themselves from the Conservatives long before polling day.
However it is now becoming increasingly clear that if they are to win back some of their lost core supporters from the arms of UKIP, the Tories will also need to start differentiating themselves from the Liberal Democrats.
Here, for what it’s worth, is how I see it panning out. Next June’s European elections turn into a disaster for both governing parties, with Labour and UKIP forcing them into third and fourth place in the popular vote.
Both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg will then have to face their party conferences in September 2014 with activists demanding how they are going to recover in time for an election that will then be less than eight months away.
If they try to stay together for the sake of the kids, it will almost certainly put Ed Miliband in Number Ten, in that the Lib Dems will find it impossible to woo back their disenchanted supporters from Labour while the Tories will struggle to win back theirs from UKIP.
The alternative – an amicable divorce with Mr Cameron leading a minority government for the final few months of the parliament - really is the only conceivable outcome.
Sounds like a very plausible course of events, Paul. My one reservation is - have UKIP peaked too early? Their strong showings this year should expose them to more intense scrutiny over the next 12 months - what exactly do they stand for (we all know what they're against), how substantial a leader is Farage really, will all these new UKIP councillors do something about that pothole outside the library? By next June, UKIP could be just one more player in the political establishment, without the surprise factor. I'm sure they'll still do well in the European elections, but the other parties will be running the expectations game against them.
Sounds like a very plausible course of events, Paul. My one reservation is - have UKIP peaked too early? Their strong showings this year should expose them to more intense scrutiny over the next 12 months - what exactly do they stand for (we all know what they're against), how substantial a figure is Farage really, will all these new UKIP councillors do something about that pothole outside the library? By next June, UKIP could be just one more player in the political establishment, without the surprise factor. I'm sure they'll still do well in the European elections, but the other parties will be running the expectations game against them.
Fair enough: you are repeating what others already agree upon (Consider, for one example, Iain Martin, as long ago as January last year).
Now let's ask how the Fixed Parliaments Act is to be unscrambled.
That, as Martin implies, is going to need the right issue, at the right time, to force a no-confidence vote which the Tories-alone (Tinn-Féin?) could usefully lose.
Martin reckoned that would have to be "Europe or economic reform". Well, Osborne's economics aren't a great seller, Plan B is playing to Labour's strength, and the other reforms (welfare, health) would be crying stinking fish. That leaves Europe. Ahem!
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