David Cameron has come close to backing the Liberal Democrat candidate in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, wishing him well. 'Obviously in a coalition you always wish your coalition partners well,' the prime minister commented. Actually, I am not sure you do. Meanwhile the Conservative candidate has been damned with faint praise by senior Conservatives, being described as 'a very good candidate'.
It is likely that Labour will hold the seat, but what is of more interest is relations between Conservatives and Lib Dems in the Coalition Government. Right-wing Conservatives are increasingly suspicious that David Cameron likes being in coalition with the Liberal Democrats because it reinforces his liberal Conservatism.
Tabloid fury has been directed at Ken Clarke for daring to suggest that it may not be a good idea to incarcerate more people for a longer period of time, particularly in a fiscal crisis. That's undoubtedly what the public want, but whether it is good penal policy is another matter. California went down the road of an incarceration state, creating a powerful lobby in the form of the prisons industrial complex until federal judges recently told them to free large numbers of prisoners.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s the Liberals and the Conservatives did electoral deals in towns with two seats like Bolton and Huddersfield. They gave the other party a free run in one of the seats, shutting out Labour. They could do such deals again in the future, but they would offend the social democratic wing of the Lib Dems and the right wing of the Conservatives.
In which case it would be open to the free market wing of the Liberal Party to break away and run without Conservative opposition. It happened after 1931 and for a long time the National Liberals (at first labelled as Liberal Nationals) had their own whips in Parliament although they supported the Conservatives. In 1947 the two parties merged at constituency level and after the 1966 general election they were so few in number that they had give up their room in the Commons to the Liberals.