Vote 2011: Tories ruthless and calculating, says Cable

Vince Cable: "We'll continue the coalition in a business-like way"

Vince Cable has attacked the Lib Dems' Tory coalition partners as "ruthless, calculating and very tribal" but insisted their alliance would continue.

The business secretary's party suffered huge losses in Thursday's elections and were defeated in the vote on changing the electoral system.

He told the BBC the government's "overwhelming priority" was still to resolve the UK's economic problems.

Tory Home Secretary Theresa May said the parties would still work together.

But Labour said the Lib Dems had to "listen" to voters rather than "ploughing on" with current coalition policies.

Thursday's referendum on changing the way Britain elects MPs was a key concession secured by the Liberal Democrats as the price of forming a coalition government with the Conservatives a year ago.

So when does the truce start, and instead of sniping at each other the coalition partners call a halt and get on with their jobs?

We have heard many times in the past 24 hours that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to a more business-like relationship, the coalition agreement is a contract, and that everyone will stick to it.

But it is not exactly businesslike of the business secretary, Vince Cable, to attack his Tory colleagues as "ruthless" and "calculating", even if it means some Lib Dems are cheering his comments as giving as good as their party got.

Paddy Ashdown has just chipped in too, saying the Tories are responsible for "the national vilification of our party and its leader".

So when will peace break out and the government, as Nick Clegg and David Cameron have said, move on?

One senior Lib Dem tells me Monday morning is maybe the time to stop slagging each other off.

It's true that you don't have to be friends with someone to work with them - and that old adage "don't mix business and pleasure" has many merits.

But even if it makes Lib Dems feel better this morning, surely, in the long run, it's better to have a functioning relationship rather than one side taking every opportunity to knock the other in public.

But the rejection of the proposal by 13,013,123 votes to 6,152,607, in only the second ever UK-wide referendum, potentially marks a new phase in the relationship between the two parties.

The Lib Dems are now expected to become more assertive in their demands over key policy areas, as they attempt to re-establish their party's identity amid fears of being wiped out at the next general election.

They are likely to push for a halt to a planned shake-up of the NHS in England, which they believe goes well beyond what was agreed at the time the coalition was formed.

They are also expected to demand a proportional voting system for a directly-elected House of Lords, as well as delays in the introduction of elected police chiefs.

Senior Lib Dems are furious about the way campaigners for a No vote, with what they believe was the approval of their Conservative cabinet colleagues, made personal attacks on Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

Mr Cable said Mr Clegg had been "subjected to an enormous amount of personal abuse during this election".

But he told the BBC News Channel: "The basic reason for going into coalition wasn't electoral reform, but the economic crisis. We still have one."

Mr Cable added: "Some of us never had many illusions about the Conservatives, but they have emerged as ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal.

"But that doesn't mean to say we can't work with them. I think they have always been that way, but you have to be businesslike and professional and you have to work with people who aren't your natural bedfellows and that is being grown-up in politics. We are going to continue to do that."

On his party's fortunes, he added: "There's absolutely no justification for panic. We've been in much worse positions before... We've had councillors who have been kicked out and fought their way back and that's the approach we have to adopt."

Former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown - a vocal critic of the Conservatives in the run-up to Thursday's AV referendum - told the BBC that David Cameron's party was responsible for the "national vilification of our party and its leader".

The Lib Dems lost around 700 councillors in the English local elections - more than a third of the seats they were defending - and 12 of its 17 MSPs at Holyrood, where the SNP scored an historic victory.

'National interest'

The Conservative vote held up well, prompting Mr Clegg to say the Lib Dems were taking the "brunt of the blame" for the coalition's spending cuts.

Start Quote

Nothing could be worse than us giving the Liberals a whole lot of concessions in the months to come”

End Quote Mark Field Conservative MP

But Theresa May said the two parties would continue to work together in government.

"Obviously they (the Lib Dems) have suffered losses in terms of seats but as Nick Clegg said yesterday (Friday) there are still very significant issues facing this country, issues that brought the two parties together in coalition, to recognise the need to work together in the national interest," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

She added: "Of course we are different parties, and we continue as different parties to fight elections separately. I don't think there is any suggestion within the coalition that somehow party identity is lost. It isn't."

The AV referendum pitted the Conservatives against the Liberal Democrats - with Mr Cameron under pressure from his own backbenchers to help deliver a No vote, amid fears the party would not be able to form a majority government again if the first-past-the-post electoral system was ditched.

Backbench Tories - many of whom believe their leader has given too many concessions to the Lib Dems since the coalition was formed - are now calling on him not to offer them further policy sweeteners just to keep the coalition together.

'Concessions'

Senior Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin said: "We went into this coalition for good or ill, and we made our concessions to the Liberal Democrats. One of those concessions was the referendum.

"We have now had the referendum and just because the referendum went a particular way not suiting the Liberal Democrats, it seems extraordinary that effectively we have got to start reopening the coalition agreement.

"The idea that there are going to be some more transactions in this relationship is not going to impress the voters at all... The concessions have been made."

Fellow Tory backbencher Mark Field told BBC News: "Nothing could be worse than us giving the Liberals a whole lot of concessions in the months to come.

"There are some very difficult decisions to be made, particularly on health reform, and the idea that somehow the Liberals can get all the credit for any changes would be something that many Conservatives would feel distinctly uneasy about."

Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party are preparing for a second term in government in Edinburgh, but this time with an overall majority.

With all results in, the SNP had 69 seats, Labour 37, the Tories 15, the Lib Dems five, and others three.

Alex Salmond's party - which humbled Labour in one of its traditional heartlands - is expected to hold a referendum on Scottish independence towards the end of its term.

Labour made significant gains in town halls in the north of England and in the Welsh assembly elections, where it fell just short of an absolute majority.

Labour also held Leicester South in a parliamentary by-election with an increased majority, although the Lib Dems hung on to second place.

Labour leader Ed Miliband - who backed AV despite the opposition of more than half of his MPs - insisted the party's strong showing in English councils and the Welsh Assembly showed it was "coming back" after its bad performance in last year's general election.

The Conservatives, who already controlled more councils than all the other parties put together, have increased their number of councillors and gained control of two councils.

In Northern Ireland, the DUP and Sinn Fein The DUP and Sinn Fein look set to remain the biggest parties in the assembly as counting resumes with two thirds of the seats still to be filled.

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