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Nicholas Leonard: UK vote result will test coalition's resolve

'We're not occupying. We're not invading. That's not what we're about", said British prime minister David Cameron yesterday as he tried to explain his coalition government's policy on Libya.

Cameron is facing urgent calls from among his own MPs to recall the Commons in order to debate his controversial decision to join with the presidents of the US and France in proclaiming that Colonel Gaddafi has got to be removed.

Anyone reading the media coverage of that declaration would have thought that it was an outright call for immediate regime change in Libya but, while that was certainly the intended message, the detail of the wording was carefully phrased to stay within the narrow confines of what the UN security council has actually allowed.

Cameron, like Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, finds these limits extremely frustrating. He admitted yesterday that because there is not going to be any invasion "we can't fully determine the outcome with what we have available".

That is something of an understatement. Many right-wing MPs are in agreement with the plea by the former head of the British armed forces, Richard Dannatt, to send arms to the anti-Gaddafi rebels but other MPs fear that it is already too late.

There is intense scepticism about the capacity of the disorganised and internally divided rebel factions in eastern Libya to turn themselves into an effective fighting force and even greater doubt about whether they could agree on a stable and democratic form of government if they did succeed in replacing the Gaddafi regime.

The Commons is due to go back to work in eight days time and there is no way Cameron is going to agree to any special debate on Libya this week.

The furore coincides with the biggest strains on the unity of the coalition government since Cameron and his beleaguered deputy, Nick Clegg, put it together almost a year ago.

The key element in that deal was Cameron's consent to holding a referendum on switching from the first past the post system of voting for MPs to a rival system called alternative voting, or AV for short.

You need to have an honours degree in political anoraky to follow the arguments for and against making this switch but the key thing to know is that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats think they will get more seats under AV and Cameron's Conservative colleagues think they will never get a comfortable majority again.

The clash between the coalition partners has turned extremely nasty with allegations of dirty tricks and blatant self-interest on each side.

The stakes could not be higher for Cameron and Clegg because only one of them can emerge as the 'winner' when the referendum is held on May 5 and the 'loser' will be badly, perhaps, lethally damaged by the taint of failure.

Cameron yesterday tried to dismiss this apocalyptic scenario, saying: "Whoever is on the losing side ... will just have to pick themselves up and say 'it was a fair argument, a fair fight, a fair referendum, the country has decided and now we have got to get on with all the things that matter so much'."

But few MPs agree with this Pollyanna view of the near future and most of them think it will not be a fair referendum because the turnout in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will almost certainly be far higher than in England, since it coincides with regional parliamentary and assembly elections.

As a result, Conservative MPs are terrified that English voters may well reject the change to AV but, because relatively few of them are likely to bother to go to the polls, they will be outnumbered by a majority yes vote in the remainder of the UK.

It would not be surprising, in fact, if a few thousand votes in Northern Ireland turned out to be the deciding factor between yes and no.

Cameron has added to the tensions between his own MPs and the Liberal Democrats by making a provocative plea for lower immigration.

While it was hedged around with numerous weasel-worded liberal-sounding statements about the good that immigrants have done to the country, the basic message was clear: pull up the drawbridge and keep Britain British.

This dog whistle appeal to voters who might otherwise support the right-wing UK Independence Party came only a few weeks after Cameron had very publicly proclaimed his pride in his Jewish ancestry through his great-great grandfather, Emile Levita, who came from Germany and got British citizenship in 1871.

It also came just days after Cameron had denounced his own university, Oxford, for taking only one new black student in the past year. It turned out that he had misunderstood the figures and the actual total was 41 (out of some 3,000 successful applicants.)

The coalition business minister, Vince Cable, who is a Lib Dem, attacked Cameron's immigration stance as "most unwise".

But Cable appears to have been granted 'licensed jester' status in the cabinet, playing Jiminy Cricket on the shoulders of his party colleagues who are torn between the selfish desire to hang on to a smidgin of power and the guilty feeling that they are betraying their political principles.

Irish Independent