Lib Dems break silence on 'Hung Parliament'

by Stephen Tall on May 19, 2008

Sensible or suicide? Intelligent or insane? I am, of course, referring to this morning’s Telegraph story which states that Nick Clegg would tacitly support the Tories if they end up as the largest single party at the next general election, but lack a majority. (Although, interestingly, many LDV readers expect the Tories to secure enough MPs to gain a working majority at the next election, according to our current poll.)

The Telegraph story states:

In consultations with senior members of the party, he said he was prepared to take the necessary steps that would enable the Tories to form a minority administration.

Mr Clegg ruled out taking a Cabinet seat in a Conservative government in return for his support and instead would provide Mr Cameron with “supply and confidence” – meaning he would promise to back a Conservative Budget and would side with the Tories in any votes of confidence. As a result, Mr Cameron would be free to accept the post of Prime Minister from the Queen on the day after the next general election, even if he failed to win an outright majority.

In return, the Liberal Democrats would reserve the right to vet Mr Cameron’s first Queen’s Speech – the publication of his legislative programme for his first year in office. Mr Clegg would have an effective veto over the Tories’ domestic policy proposals as he could withdraw the support of his MPs and order them to vote with the Labour opposition on measures with which he disagreed.

The first question we need to ask is, is the story true? I’ve not seen any furious rebuttals from the party yet, so we might reckon that there’s at least enough fact in it to be plausible. Secondly, the Telegraph frames the question solely in the context of the Tories – but I would imagine the same deal would be offered to Gordon Brown (or whoever leads the Government into the next election) if Labour were to be returned as the single largest party.

Assuming this is the case, this new strategy strikes me as some rather neat triangulation on behalf of the party leadership – and something which could well be used to the party’s advantage in the forthcoming election campaign, whenever it might be.

First, by pledging to work with the party which ends up as the single largest group in the House of Commons, the Lib Dems would demonstrate they are respecting the will of the people.

Secondly, it creates equi-distance between the Tories and Labour based on the judgement of the public. Nor will the party be seen as evasive for never answering the inevitable “Who would you back?” question which obsesses journalists (not least because they know we hate it, and because they know the more often it’s asked the less likely a Hung Parliament is to occur).

And, thirdly, it allows the party to campaign as a radical but moderating influence. If there is a minority Labour administration, the Lib Dems will be in a position to pledge an end to unfair tax increases like Gordon Brown’s 10p tax-con, and to the abuse of individual civil liberties. If there is a minority Tory administration, the Lib Dems can pledge there will be no return to slashing funding of health and education, or harsh crackdowns on asylum-seekers.

And with the Lib Dems in a pivotal position of influence, we will have a much larger platform from which to campaign for those causes dear to party hearts, such as the environment, greater devolution and international affairs.