For the second time in recent weeks, teaching students on politics has provided inspiration for a post. This week we were discussing the relationship between the PM and Cabinet, the conventions which exist and how recent Prime Ministers (particularly Blair and Thatcher) broke with established conventions on how to work with the Cabinet. We also talked about the importance of collective responsibility – and how it is probably more important at the moment, with a coalition rather than single-party government. So that’s the context of the discussion.

One student made the case that perhaps we didn’t really have a coalition. In their view (and, they argued, the view of many others beside) the government was not a Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition (or even, as some lefty types have rather unhelpfully described it, the “ConDem coalition”). No, they argued that what we really had was simply a Conservative government with just a tinge of Lib Dem seasoning. From the student’s perspective, those Lib Dem’s in government were no longer “true” Lib Dems because they agreed with – and were enacting – so much Conservative policy. No, for the student, Nick Clegg and the other Lib Dem ministers had become a part of the Conservative party, with only backbench Lib Dem MPs maintaining their status as a separate party.

For my part, I pointed out that wasn’t quite the case (and yes, quite possibly this was the first time I’ve defended the Lib Dems!). I argued that a coalition was a combination of the interests and manifestos of two parties, that compromises had to be made and an agreement signed by both sides. I argued that, to provide stable government and a platform to address the economic situation, the Lib Dems had compromised on a lot of issues in order to try to help the country. But above all, I argued that, even though it appears that Nick Clegg and David Cameron are now “best mates”, they’ll still disagree on policy issues – and they’ll still be in different parties.

But the student wasn’t having any of it. What was true didn’t really matter in one sense, they argued, it was the perception of that reality that was important. From their perspective, Nick Clegg had morphed from a “likeable Lib Dem” pre-election to Cameron’s right-hand man, a liberal Tory, post election. And so too had those Lib Dem ministers in the Cabinet because they no longer stood for Lib Dem values – in particular PR, tuition fees and the Vince Cable promise not to raise VAT. In short, they’d simply backed the Conservatives to the extent that they were no longer a noticeably different party.

I’ve no doubt Lib Dem readers (if we have any left by this point!) will argue vociferously that this is not the case. In fact, I suspect Lib Dem members and activists (I’d put “if there are any left” in here, but I know I’d get skelped for being so cheeky) who disagree with some or most of the coalition’s actions will find aspects of it which are distinctively Lib Dem. And if not, they can always make the case that, whether there are Lib Dem policies in there or not it is still better for them to be in government than not, because if the Tories were left on their own then the cuts would be much worse. Now, I’m not sure that is entirely true (and I suspect we can’t really know, given we don’t know how much influence, if any, senior Lib Dems have in Cabinet and ministerial meetings) but again, I’m not sure it matters – its how the thing is spun.

And that really is the crux of the matter. How is the coalition perceived in public? Opinion polls have the coalition in negative approval ratings (by single digits, so not entirely unrecoverable) and a recent YouGov poll had the Lib Dems at 11% – up 2 points on the previous, but down by more than half of their 23% vote share in May. So “not well” is probably the answer. And if that result was returned in an election… well, let’s just say Nick Clegg is happy for the government to continue until 2015.

Of course reality matters – you only need to see the depth of feeling and anger of the masses evident in the student demo(lition) last Wednesday. And the reality is, there are two parties in government in the UK – one larger, and gets more policies through, the other smaller, helping them – and trying to pass some of its own ideas. But the perception – if indeed it is widely held, as the student suggested – is that this is a Conservative government simply being helped along by some supportive Lib Dems. And that might be more damaging to Clegg and co in the long run.