London: British Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy insisted Sunday their coalition government would survive a bitter battle over changing the voting system, which has put their parties at loggerheads.
Voters will decide in an historic referendum Thursday whether to change the system of first past the post, where the candidate with the most votes wins, or replace it with the alternative vote (AV), a system of preference votes.
Cameron has been vigorously campaigning to keep the old system, backed by his Conservative party, while deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, is desperately trying to convince the public of the need to change.
After early signs of support for the “yes” camp, polls now indicate a “no” vote is likely - a BPIX survey for the Mail on Sunday newspaper found 51% opposed the reform and just 33% backed it.
But the vehemence with which the campaign has been conducted has surprised many, and sparked fears for the future of the coalition which marks its first year in power this month.
One Lib Dem minister accused his rivals of conducting a “Goebbels-like campaign”, in reference to the Nazi propaganda chief, and Clegg himself has accused his opponents of “lies, misinformation and deceit”.
The Tories meanwhile have told the Lib Dems to stop “whingeing” and Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested AV was a “loser’s charter”.
“We always knew that this would be a moment of difficulty for the coalition because we always knew that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would be on opposing sides in this campaign,” Cameron told the BBC Sunday.
“But I think it’s perfectly possible, indeed we will demonstrate that it’s possible, to continue a strong and effective coalition government in the national interest for five years.”
Clegg for his part said the issue was “much bigger” than the coalition. He had made holding a referendum on the AV issue a condition of allying with their traditional political opponents after last year’s election.
The political stakes are high for the Liberal Democrats, who have long campaigned for a change in the voting system which they believe penalises smaller parties such as themselves.
The current system hands victory to candidates who win with the most votes, regardless of by how much, and the “yes” campaign notes that about two-thirds of current MPs do not have a majority of support.
“It cannot be right that most people in this country are represented by hundreds of MPs... for whom most people didn’t even vote for in the first place,” Clegg said.
Under AV, voters rank candidates in order of preference, with the lowest scoring candidate eliminated through a series of rounds and their votes re-allocated to their rivals.
The Lib Dems would have liked a form of proportional representation but this was too radical for their Tory partners. However, Clegg said AV was a “slightly better, slightly fairer, slightly more democratic system” worth voting for.
The “no” camp, meanwhile, says AV is too complicated, would be expensive to introduce and, because it would likely result in more coalitions, would make it harder for the electorate to sweep away unpopular governments.
Cameron said “it would be a huge mistake” to vote yes.
“Our current system is simple, it’s well understood, it’s fair because every vote counts the same and it’s effective - you can get rid of governments you don’t like,” he said.
Despite the heated rhetoric, the row may not be quite what it appears. Clegg has been criticised by his supporters for getting too close to the Tories, and some commentators note how the public rift works in his favour.
Labour foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander accused Cameron and Clegg on Sunday of a “pretty synthetic disagreement”.
And Clegg himself admitted: “Clearly if anyone needed any reminding that this coalition government is composed of different parties with different values and different identities, maybe in the long run that’s not a bad thing.”