Does coalition divorce mean permanent estrangement for Tories and Lib Dems?

If evidence was still needed of the Coalitions partners’ divorce…

“A desperate attention seeker” and a “dangerous man”. Comments that are perhaps to be expected in the context of a general election campaign. But when it’s the Prime Minister referring to the Deputy PM as an attention seeker, and the Deputy PM referring to the Chancellor of the Exchequer as dangerous, it quickly becomes clear how politics has moved on in the last five years.

The gloves are off. Battle has been joined. Mere days after David Cameron and Nick Clegg took the stage for the leaders’ debate, their parties are embroiled in a war of words that includes Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander claiming the Tories are interested only in looking after “the bosses.”

That the Conservatives and Lib Dems are trying to emphasise their differences after five years of working cooperatively is hardly surprising. But it’s a strategy that comes with risks for both parties.

With opinion polls suggesting that a future coalition is not only possible but likely, both parties have a tightrope to walk – one that demonstrates their differences and highlights the other’s flaws, while at the same time making it possible for them to potentially work together again in future. The tête-à-tête between the former Coalition partners is only one of a number of intriguing subplots within the election. But it could be amongst the most significant.

The Lib Dems remain the Tories’ most natural potential partners if David Cameron is unable to win a majority. For all the hype, UKIP is unlikely to win enough seats to control the balance of power in the next parliament. And, leaked memos aside, an alliance between the Tories and SNP seems inconceivable given their differences over austerity, defence and the future of the Union. Even if the Conservatives are able to form a minority government, they would need support in passing major legislation

In contrast, much has been written of the potential for some form of cooperation between Labour and the SNP, which could provide Ed Miliband with enough seats to form a working government. The Lib Dems, despite championing their credentials as a partner in a future coalition, have done little in recent weeks to publicly woo Labour, although the prospect of collaborative working has been raised in the past. .

The danger for both the Tories and Lib Dems is that in championing their differences and respective achievements, they also alienate the other Party’s senior figures and activists to the point where future cooperation is difficult if not impossible.

If things get that far, will both sides be able to reunite in coalition or partnership? Only time will tell.