After Falling Out with Europe, U.K.’s Cameron Faces Fallout at Home

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Parbul TV / Reuters

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (C) is flanked by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (R) and Leader of the House of Commons George Young during a parliamentary debate on last week's European Union summit, in London December 12, 2011.

Ou est Nick Clegg?” cried one Labour MP, quite possibly demonstrating the beginning and end of his French language skills. His colleagues contented themselves with shouting the question in English. It didn’t need an interpreter to translate their point. The multilingual, half-Dutch, quarter-Russian, entirely and passionately pro-European Liberal Democrat leader Clegg had failed to show up in the House of Commons for David Cameron’s Dec. 12 account of the previous week’s European Union summit. Cameron left the summit as the only leader of 27 E.U. nations to block a plan to save the euro. Clegg stayed away during Cameron’s statement to prevent his presence in the Commons becoming “a distraction,” he explained later. But that’s just what it became. In absentia, Clegg achieved something he has often struggled to do in person: to be the center of attention. Where was Clegg—not just physically but mentally? Might Britain’s coalition be heading for the divorce courts?

Back in 2010, when Britain’s parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear outcome, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats stumbled into an unplanned marriage of convenience. They made an odd couple. The larger party came with baggage including a history of civil war between its pro- and anti-European wings; the pros had almost given up the ghost, metaphorically or literally. The smaller party advocated such heresies as scrapping the pound for the euro. Against expectations, the marriage blossomed into something that looked close to love, at least between the parties’ leaders. Cameron and Clegg’s bromance caused queasiness among Conservatives and Lib Dems alike, who suspected that manifesto pledges and long-expressed ideological views would be discarded as the Prime Minister and his Deputy pleaded, in turn, that this thing was bigger than both of them. And so it has proved, with both parties tipped into making compromises in order to preserve the coalition.

But then, in the early hours of Dec. 9, Cameron, without waking Clegg (who was sleeping the sleep of the just in his constituency in Northern England), took the single most significant decision since their strange and strangely harmonious coalition came to power: he deployed Britain’s veto against a proposal, supported by all European Union members but the U.K., to boost efforts to stabilize the euro by amending the E.U. treaty. He did this, the Prime Minister told the Commons, “in the national interest.” Cameron’s move delighted the Conservative base, provoked mixed responses in continental Europe—from contempt and irritation to barely concealed glee—and plunged many Liberal Democrat MPs into existential despair. They had allowed themselves to believe their presence in the coalition served to mitigate Conservative policies. Now they faced the realization that their presence in the coalition had enabled Cameron to launch a policy on Europe that his most euroskeptic of backbenchers might have dictated—and in some very real sense did. As the full horror sank in, Lib Dems were left asking “what is the point of us?” and, with increasing anger, “what is the point of Nick Clegg?”

After Cameron delivered his statement, Labour MPs lined up to hurl insults at the opposite benches. One veteran MP, Dennis Skinner, called the Prime Minister a “plonker,” a Britishism for “dope.” The Lib Dems are too genteel a breed to respond in kind, but those who did speak seemed more inclined to attack their Conservative partners than their Labour opponents. Jo Swinson, the parliamentary aide to the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable, drew an uncomfortable comparison between the United Nations climate negotiations in South Africa, which ended on Dec. 11 with a deal, and Cameron’s adventures in Brussels. “Constructive and positive diplomacy might be a better approach to securing British interests than rushing for the exit,” she suggested.

Rumors suggested Swinson’s boss, Cable, might be on the point of rushing for a different exit — from the coalition. That was before Clegg used a Sunday morning TV interview to fire a salvo at Cameron’s decision. “There is a danger that the U.K. will be isolated and marginalized within the European Union,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr. “I don’t think that’s good for jobs… I don’t think it’s good for growth or families up and down the country.” This was a sentiment Clegg repeated after Cameron’s statement, to a huddle of parliamentary reporters. “Being isolated… is potentially bad for jobs, bad for growth, bad for the livelihoods of millions of people in this country,” he said. “But,” he added, “the coalition is here to stay.”

For now, that appears to be true. Cable took his place on the front bench during Cameron’s speech, even if Clegg did not. Indeed Clegg’s public shows and no-show of unhappiness licensed his colleagues to vent and then get back aboard the coalition express. And there’s another reason the Lib Dems might delay calling time on their controversial relationship with the Conservatives: a poll for the Times of London, published on Dec. 12, revealed majority support among the British public for Cameron’s decision, even among Lib Dem voters.

Recent polls also show Labour still a few points ahead of the Conservatives. As things stand, Cameron continues to need Clegg. That’s enough to keep the pair together in the short term, perhaps for longer. But the romance has died and the end, when it comes, promises to be bitter.

Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME .