Danny Finkelstein's Times column (£) today is typically smart. I doubt any leading political columnist in Britain enjoys paradox more than the Fink.
Consider this, he suggests: the flak the Lib Dems have taken for their reality-based flip-flop on tuition fees is, on the surface, a blessing for the Tories. But that masks another fact: the students and their cheerleaders aren't upset with the Tories because, deep down, they expect them to be heartless, cut-throat bastards. Worse still, the coalition could reframe and reinforce that view: everything nice and cuddly will be due to the moderating Liberal Democrat influence; everything brutish and reactionary the proof that Tory blood still runs nasty. This may be unfair but that's a different point entirely.
So far so easy. Then the Fink moves into provocative mode:
The latest vogue idea among party activists is for the party outside government to start working on distinctively Tory ideas that show what the party would do if it didn’t have to compromise with its partners. Most of this involves being more obviously right-wing.
Yet there is an irony here. If the party wishes to have more independence of action and not to rely on the Liberal Democrats, then it should move towards the centre, making the Lib Dems redundant. If it wishes to be in perpetual coalition it should move towards the right, keeping its core but making it necessary to add the support of other parties in order to govern. In other words, it should act in exactly the opposite way to that which the activists are advising.
What the party cannot do is expect the sort of people who have traditionally voted Lib Dem to disappear in a puff of smoke just because that party is under pressure. The Tories did not win enough of those people at the last election. And if they are to win a majority they will need to do better.
This creates an awkward dilemma. To help Nick Clegg it is necessary to give him credit for policy successes, but in order to thrive electorally it is necessary for Tories to be credited with progressive measures.
A joint approach at the next election makes sense in other ways too, not the least of which being that it will prevent, or lesson, intra-coalition squabbling while also allowing both parties to train their fire on a common enemy: Labour.