Executive summary: In a move that would shock most of the people who know me, I have no choice but to back the LDs into a coalition with the Tories. No other option is tenable, and coalition is the best way to achieve LD policies. Full thinking follows…
The incredible developments of yesterday have combined to produce a truly astonishing moment in British politics. The right went into synthetic rage when they realised that Nick Clegg had the sheer audicity of negotiating with another party. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown noticed the rather large writing on the wall that had been there since October 2007, and offered to fall on his sword.
Elsewhere, Nick Clegg got caught in a classic bind. Which way does he go?
I had been speculating for a while that something was amiss. It was clear that Mandy et al were telling the Lib Dems in secret backchannels that Brown would depart to smooth any transition. The LDs were clearly listening, but wanted to show the Conservatives the courtesy of concluding their negotiations first. That the Tories should be “shocked” that a horse-trade was soon to follow either shows their stunning naivety or breathtaking arrogance.
Either way, I’m certain the LDs and the Tories thought they’d finished the negotations yesterday. David Laws and his negotiating team were ready to get the deal approved by his fellow MPs, and then it was to be concluded in the Federal Executive later that day. The tenor of the coverage was that the deal was inevitable.
Instead, David Laws comes out and claims he has been asked to seek “clarification”. You bet he was. There was obviously some concern amongst the parliamentary party that the deal – for confidence and supply – was imprecise. They must also have realised that it was time to talk to Labour, and see what extra they could get from the Tories. That’s what negotiation is all about.
The path was then clear for Gordon to go public, and the dual talks to begin. Politicalbetting.com jumped the shark. I’ve never seen such vitriol, and such panic. All of a sudden, the Tories’ ascent to power was in jeopardy.
Open negotiations will now begin with both sides. That is right, and it is fair.
But the stakes are now extremely high.
It’s clear that Gordon Brown knows only a coalition will do. He said so yesterday. And the Tories have made their so-called “final” offer (I’ll bet you it’s not) – but the price will be a formal coalition, embracing the LDs so tight that their blood supply will be in serious jeopardy.
None of this was on the table a couple of days ago. The LDs were going to let a minority Tory administration form, and in return get some policies through. Politically, that was the right option. It would allow the LDs to survive. But in terms of delivering policies, it wasn’t.
The LDs now have the unenviable choice. Not supporting either party is no longer an option. It would be seen as extremely weak and indecisive after spending so long negotiating with them. It would also allow people to claim that this is somehow a disaster of PR (even though it’s under FPTP) because apparently negotiating and taking a little time over a new government is a failure.
The real killer, though, is that when faced with the chance of power, the LDs refused it. Then we’d get a run down of the old classics like: “You don’t know what you stand for!” and “What is the point of the Liberal Democrats?”
There are now just two options. A coalition with Labour, or a coalition with the Conservatives?
In terms of policy, there is only one answer. Labour. They will clearly be able to offer way more of the Lib Dem agenda because their situation is more desperate. They want to cling to power and will do anything to achieve it. A coalition with Labour may be the only chance ever the Liberal Democrats will get to push for the Single Transferable Vote and all manner of other reforms that the Tories could never support.
But realistically, a coalition with Labour would be a disaster. The waning power of the papers means that we could safely ignore their rancid rubbish. But it would nevertheless create days of hysteria about the “undemocratic” outcome of a coalition between two parties with more than a majority of support across all of the UK, including England. That’s not a problem.
The real issue is the fact that Labour cannot deliver their promises. A new leader could not be trusted. Neither could the rainbow of others. The fractious Labour Party is split a multitude of ways on the reform options. The party is ill-disciplined. It will not survive more than a year. Perhaps it doesn’t need to if STV is delivered quickly.
But it’s just not tenable. Another new PM with no election?
I don’t buy it. Not in this age with the presidentialisation of politics.
The Liberal Democrats have no choice but to form a coalition with the Conservatives. The reaction from the left of the party – a faction in which I count myself – will be tough to bear. But the LDs have negotiated so well that there is enough of our agenda in play. We can try to reassure Labour voters, through, hopefully, our record in office, that it was the right thing for the country, as it will tame the worst excesses of the Tory government we could so very nearly have had.
If it can survive in office for at least two years, it will allow the electorate time to reflect more on us with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps we won’t be punished so harshly then.
This has to be wrapped up today. Though it is sensible to negotiate with all sides, we have done what we needed to, and that was force the Tories to up their game. Now we’ve done that, it’s time to look decisive, accept the new position, and avoid poisoning what is going to be our crucial relationship with the Tories before the government has even got underway.
This turned into an essay, but it’s because there are so many points to consider. It’s the most difficult decision the LDs will probably ever make. But in reality now, there can only be one outcome.
Good work, Nick. But don’t mess it up.