Cameron plays down threat of rift in his coalition over voting reform amid dirty tricks charges

David Cameron attempts to calm talk of rifts in his coalition government over voting reform as the "no" vote ups its lead in the polls

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Calm down boy
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The Commentator
On 17 April 2011 11:04

Prime Minister David Cameron on Sunday sought to play down the significance of bitter squabbling between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over next month’s referendum on electoral reform.

In the latest outburst, former Liberal-Democrat leader and party grandee Paddy Ashdown slammed Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in graphic terms in an article in the Observer:

"The strategy is clear," he said. "Throw as much mud as you can, don't let the issue be discussed openly and frighten the public over the next three weeks into voting to preserve the power the present first-past-the-post system gives you. This strategy stinks of the same odour which has surrounded our politics recently”.

Analysts say the row between the Conservatives, who want to preserve the current first-past-the-post voting system, and the Liberal Democrats, who are campaigning for a change to the alternative vote (AV) system, could potentially wreck Mr. Cameron’s coalition government.

But speaking on Sky News' 'Murnaghan' show, the prime minister insisted that tensions were not causing rifts in the coalition and that whatever the result the two parties were committed to governing together for the remainder of the parliamentary term..

“[Liberal-Democrat leader] Nick Clegg and I agreed we were going to have this referendum. And we also agreed we’d accept the result whatever it is”, he said.

“Whoever’s on the losing side, as it were, will just have to pick themselves up and say it was a fair argument, a fair fight…”

Entering a coalition government with the Conservatives was a controversial move for most Liberal-Democrats and the party’s ratings have plunged to below 10 percent in the opinion polls. Should the party end up on the losing side in the forthcoming referendum, Mr. Clegg may find himself torpedoed below the waterline.

Asked whether he understood how difficult a defeat would be for the Liberal-Democrat leader, Mr. Cameron indicated that he did, and lavished praise on his coalition partner for his role in government.

“We work together and we have to understand each other’s respective positions… I would argue that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have played a very important role in the coalition… They’ve made a real difference in this government.”

The latest ComRes poll suggests that the British public are increasingly sympathetic to the “no” campaign which has focused most recently on the cost and complexity of the proposed system. 43 percent of those polled would vote “no” on May 5, compared with only 37 percent voting “yes” and 21 percent still undecided.

The referendum, set in the government's Coalition Agreement, will take place alongside various local elections at which the Liberal Democrats are also expected to do badly.

The British public will be confronted with a choice to move to an AV voting system used by only three countries in the world: Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Critics note that the AV model caused a 19 per cent drop in voter turnout in Australia, necessitating mandatory voting. The country is now reconsidering whether AV is a sensible system to have adopted.

Mr. Ashdown insisted that the 'no' campaign was using “tawdry” tactics in arguing that a move to AV would help the far-right British National Party (BNP). He also firmly rejected allegations of a conflict of interest after the Electoral Reform Society's £1.1m donation to the “yes” campaign.

The allegation came following a leaked memo stating that there could be “increased business opportunities” for the organisation's commercial arm, Electoral Reform Services Ltd, if a “yes” vote passes.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have gripes of their own with the Liberal Democrats. Conservative chair Baroness Warsi last week decried the Liberal Democrats’ “name calling tactics”.

In March, Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Chris Huhne accused Lady Warsi of conducting an "increasingly Goebbels-like campaign" for a “no” vote.

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