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.

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We all know about Cook-Maclennan but isn’t that with the benefit of hindsight and post-election evidence?

No, because Cook-Maclennan – in which we pledged to work with a Labour government on a joint cabinet committee even if Labour had a majority (which of course is precisely what we did) – was published before, er, the election. The abandonment of equidistance was two years before the election.

My reason for mentioning Chard was not to suggest it was an explicit endorsement of Labour but to demonstrate that throughout the 1992-1997 period, Ashdown was working on a sustained project of positioning the Lib Dems as Labour’s allies. He had his criticisms, to be sure. But Chard was critiquing a Smith-era Labour Party and even then he was making early signals of a future realignment of the left.

To suggest he spent the five years running up to the 1997 election not clearly indicating he would back a Labour government is fanciful and ludicrous.

by James Graham on May 20, 2008 at 11:43 am. Reply #

To say that we are prepared to give ‘supply and confidence’ we must also be able to say that we are prepared to take it, were we in the same position.

That may not be the current reality, but we need to be clear about the rationale behind the principle to take the high ground on the issue.

Are we so desperate that we would do anything to get into government, or will we submit to the will of the people whatever the outcome of an election?

Would we refuse ‘supply and confidence’ from either of the other parties? Would Labour and Conservative refuse to give S&C and force a new election, or be forced to accept a grand coalition?

by Oranjepan on May 20, 2008 at 11:46 am. Reply #

“Are we so desperate that we would do anything to get into government . . .”

We certainly look that way if we keep saying that we will decide what to do after the results.

by Grammar Police on May 20, 2008 at 12:04 pm. Reply #

@ grammer police
How is not saying anything until after the results a sign of desperation?

by Darrell on May 20, 2008 at 12:51 pm. Reply #

What if Labour were the largest party but had recieved fewer votes than the Tories?

by Cheltenham Robin on May 20, 2008 at 1:14 pm. Reply #

Because our choices before the result are the same as our choices after the result. They’ll all be as unpalatable then as they are now. I don’t think there’s been anyone arguing that going into formal coalition with Lab/Con, or forcing new elections is better than supply & demand to largest party.

Refusing to say so now suggests that you believe formal coalition/cabinet positions with one or t’other is the best option – and what’s worse, that we don’t really care who with, as long as we’re in Government, that we are hedging our bets, which *looks* opportunist whether it is or not.

by Grammar Police on May 20, 2008 at 1:46 pm. Reply #

Er *supply & confidence*!!

by Grammar Police on May 20, 2008 at 1:50 pm. Reply #

But after an election we will have a much clearer idea what people want and where we can work with which party to push our agenda forward. ..

by Anonymous on May 20, 2008 at 3:06 pm. Reply #

Well, there’s apparently no truth in the story anyway.

“Clearer idea of what people want”? Do you just mean “One party will be bigger than another”? If so, why do we need to wait before saying that. Unless of course, you don’t want to work with the largest party, but with one in particular, or neither. In which case, you should say that too.

by Grammar Police on May 20, 2008 at 3:23 pm. Reply #

The argument needs to be made forcefully that “supply and confidence” does not mean “cuddling up to the Tories” or “cuddling up to Labour”. It means we will not inflict another general election on the people when they’ve just endured one, and will keep to the principle that whichever party has the most seats has “won” the election and thus has a right to form a government. If no party has a majority, we will reserve the right to bring that government down if it proposes anything we believe does not have the support of the nation. We hope, of course, that should we emerge as the party with most seats, the other parties will behave likewise.

by Matthew Huntbach on May 20, 2008 at 3:52 pm. Reply #

I do mean that we would know which party is the largest and as I have said elsewhere that would not be an eternal mandate to govern because they would have to still failed to win enough support to form an outright majority.

The first point to make is that this article was slanted towards the Tories and although Steven said it would apply to Labour too that was only an assumption not set out in stone. I think we should judge it on a) who the largest party is and b) who is willing to work with us to get some of our program acted on…with b being more important than a.

by Darrell on May 20, 2008 at 5:55 pm. Reply #

A brilliant article. It’s dispelled a few worries I’d been having lately about the Party nationally.

Whilst I certainly wouldn’t want the Tories to win the next general election (and my money is still on either a hung parliament or a one-figure Labour majority), I realise that it wouldn’t be a complete disaster for us; even if Nick did make the silly mistake of ‘over-supporting’ Cameron.

Roll on the Henley by-election, it might be a three-hour train journey from my beloved Manchester, but I still want to give the Tories a run for their money!

by Dom Weldon on May 23, 2008 at 8:17 pm. Reply #

If the article is accurate I despair.

There is only one sensible line about a hung parliament – we will work with any party that does a-e (how about more power to voters (STV), reducing inequality, the environment, tax reform, making prison and courts work)

and yes we will take cabinet seats – for the first time since 1945, because we want to be at the heart of Government becasue we passionately wish to change they way this country is run. That is to say we use the debate as a chance to get our messgae accross.

If Clegg even thinks he is likely to get a chance to prop up a Tory Govt in the event of a hung parliament, he’s a pratt, Labour would abstain and the Lib Dem votes will be irrelevant. After basically 100 years out of power ther party still doesn’t get hung parliaments.

Oaten was of course very keen on coalition before his troubles!

by Mouse on May 23, 2008 at 8:51 pm. Reply #

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