Deal or no deal? Here’s what I think

by Stephen Tall on May 8, 2010

Who would want to be in Nick Clegg’s place today? For all the talk during the campaign that the Lib Dem leader would end up as ‘Kingmaker’, that now looks the least enviable position imaginable.

I’ve read and absorbed lots of the commentary of the last 24 hours – both on this site and elsewhere – and am amazed by the striking naivete of those who appear to imagine there is an easy option for the Lib Dems, that whatever choice we make in the days ahead won’t involve compromise and pain. Sorry guys: it will.

Nick Clegg has just three realistic choices, and all of them are unappetising in one way or another.

A deal with the Tories:

Nick Clegg has quite rightly stuck to his campaign pledge to allow the party which won the strongest mandate (most votes and most seats) to have the first option to seek to govern alone, or with other others.

The idea that Nick should have turned around yesterday and said, “I know the people have spoken, but so what, I hate Tories” – I’m only slightly paraphrasing the advice of some on the left – is as ludicrous as it is insulting to the public’s intelligence. Nick’s statement yesterday was both correct and unavoidable given the election result.

But of course there are problems, very big problems, with cutting a deal with the Tories. First and most obvious that the Lib Dems have significant policy differences on quite crucial areas: from tax reform, to the need to safeguard the recovery before cutting public spending, to changing the electoral system.

Secondly, and more tactical, that many of our members, and even more of our supporters, would identify themselves as ‘progressives’, a vague term which can be reasonably translated as ‘anti-Tory’. There is a very real risk that by throwing in our lot with Cameron, or even just appearing to, those progressive voters will desert the Lib Dems in favour of Labour, and that may threaten many of the 57 Lib Dem seats we now hold.

This is a risk of which the Lib Dem leadership will be acutely aware. Four of the key Lib Dem negotiating team – Nick, Chris Huhne, David Laws and Vince Cable – are MPs for seats where the chief challenger is the Tories, and owe their majorities at least in part by appealing to Labour voters. They have a very personal investment in making sure whatever the party decides does not put such support in jeopardy.

A deal with Labour:

If you were to believe lefty commentators such as the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee and Indy’s Steve Richards, the choice for Nick Clegg is obvious: the Lib Dems must throw their lot in with Labour, the only party which appears to be making a serious offer of electoral reform. As they must know, if they put aside their tribal Labour allegiance for one moment, it simply isn’t that easy.

Let’s leave to one side that Labour had 13 years to prevent this situation from arising – 13 years during which Gordon Brown personally was one of the biggest roadblocks to electoral reform – before suddenly deciding overnight on 6th May that it was the best policy since sliced bread.

There is a much bigger problem with any suggestions of a Lib/Lab pact based on electoral reform. First, the combined forces of Lib Dem and Labour MPs is not sufficient to secure a majority for any form of programme for government. Secondly, even supposing the Labour leadership is prepared to concede a referendum on electoral reform, it is extremely doubtful they can persuade every single Labour MP to support it.

Based on policy alone, I think it’s true to say there’s more common ground between the Lib Dems and Labour. But that is not enough if the numbers don’t stack up to support a deal that will last. And it’s hard to imagine a worse scenario for the Lib Dems than that we eventually decide to throw in our lot with Labour in exchange for a referendum on electoral reform, and then find the pact falls apart the first time it’s tested in the House of Commons. A second election would then be inevitable in which the Lib Dems would be punished severely by the voters.

And let’s not forget another simple fact: Labour lost this election. True, the Tories didn’t win it. But only one party emerged from this election with a lower share of the vote. For the Lib Dems to prop up the party which voters have turned away from is absolutely not a risk-free option.

No deal, but allow a minority Tory government:

My guess, still, is that this is what ultimately will happen. The Tories have over 300 MPs, making it feasible that they could put forward a programme of government on which the Lib Dems would abstain in return for some modest concessions.

It has the advantage of keeping the Lib Dems a little more pure. Nick Clegg could claim, reasonably enough, that the party had moderated the worst of the Tory party, and ensured stability in government at a time of economic frailty.

But this middle-way still has its risks. For a start, it will enable Labour to claim the mantle of official opposition. No matter that the Lib Dems would not have ‘done a deal’, that is how it will be portrayed on every single Labour leaflet. This risks a real third party squeeze at the next election: both Labour and the Tories will urge voters to choose the ‘real thing’, a party which will form the next government. And in return for that squeeze, the Lib Dems would have extracted fewer concessions than a formal deal would have made possible.

And of course a minority government will amost certainly mean an election sooner rather than later. No Lib Dem would welcome that. First, we will be blamed for having not put country before party. Secondly, we can’t afford it, at least not as easily as the Tories can. And thirdly, it’s hard to see how a ‘One More Heave’ election won’t see the party’s support squeezed.

Finally:

Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems are in an extremely difficult position. None of the options open to the party are attractive: anyone who suggests the choice is easy (in whatever direction) just hasn’t thought about it hard enough.

For the moment I am content that we have a serious group of hard-nosed negotiators in our leadership who are as aware of the dangers of our situation as they are of the opportunities. Let us see what their discussions produce before rushing to judgement.