Deal between Lib Dems and Conservatives imminent

by Stephen Tall on May 11, 2010

A quick round-up of where we seem to be at right now (with apologies for the slowness of the site loading: our servers are taking a bit of a battering right now!) …

Throughout the afternoon a succession of Labour figures ruled out any prospect of a Lib-Lab coalition deal. This morning people like John Reid, David Blunkett and Tom Harris dismissed the idea – this afternoon they were joined by serving ministers such as Andy Burnham, Jack Straw, Liam Byrne, Sadiq Khan, Diana Johnson and Peter Ainsworth. With the possibility of a Lib-Lab pact utterly dependent on unity within Labour ranks, it became clear Labour just wasn’t prepared to do a deal.

Fair enough and it’s their right not to – but I hope we don’t hear too much self-righteous cant in the days to come about from Labour suggesting actually they were quite open to the deal. It’s Labour which has slammed the door shut on the Lib Dems. As Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders put it on Facebook:

I got in wrong. I thought Labour would want to form a reform coalition even though the arithmatic was tight. It would only take a couple of Labour MPs to rule out an agreement and it would be dead in the water. Today several Labour MPs have been ruling out the chance of such a coalition and forcing us to produce a stable Government in the best interests of the country with the Conservatives.

So the Lib Dems are left with the choice of doing a deal with the Tories … or not doing a deal. As I’ve made clear throughout, there are pros and cons with either option.

Doing a deal will mean the Lib Dems are associated with the Tories in the eyes of many, and that won’t be liked by voters on the liberal-left of politics. Almost certainly the Lib Dems will suffer at the polls as a result, perhaps most of all in urban areas in the north and in Scotland. That will be painful. If the party signs up to this deal, it’s important we do so with our eyes wide open as to the risks. On the upside, it sounds like the deal will include a number of Lib Dem policies – things which would just not get done if we were to sit on the sidelines for the next few years. It also gives senior Lib Dem figures the chance to prove themselves in government for the first time in 65 years.

Not doing a deal … well, it’s an option. On the plus-side we keep our hands clean, and can attack a minority Tory government whenever the mood takes us. Quite how the public would respond to that, I don’t know. Badly is my guess. More importantly, the way would be open for the Tories to hold the Lib Dems to ransom, effectively threatening to go to the polls every time it looked like they couldn’t get their latest bill through. Bills which might include married couple tax cuts, targeting immigration, and withdrawing further from Europe. Of course all those things may happen even with a deal: but not to the same extent.

For Lib Dem members wanting to know when they get a proper say – well, according to the Guardian, this weekend seems to be the answer:

4.46pm: Apparently the Liberal Democrats have booked a venue for a special conference on Saturday. And they have also started to prepare ballot papers for a ballot of the entire membership.

Under the so-called “triple lock” in the party rulebook, there are provisions to consult the entire membership about any proposal that would “affect the party’s independence of political action”. This is what the triple lock says in full.

    Conference agrees that:

    (i) in the event of any substantial proposal which could affect the Party’s independence of political action, the consent will be required of a majority of members of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons and the Federal Executive; and,

    (ii) unless there is a three-quarters majority of each group in favour of the proposals, the consent of the majority of those present and voting at a Special Conference convened under clause 6.6 of the Constitution; and,

    (iii) unless there is a two-thirds majority of those present and voting at that Conference in favour of the proposals, the consent of a majority of all members of the Party voting in the ballot called pursuant to clause 6.11 or 8.6 of the Constitution.

The triple lock was approved by the Lib Dem in conference in 1998 because activists were worried that Paddy Ashdown wanted to take the Lib Dems into a coalition with Labour (see 9.57am).

As the Lib Dems interpret this clause, Nick Clegg would not need a special conference if three-quarters of the parliamentary party and three-quarters of the federal executive approve a coalition. But I’m told that Clegg is preparing for a special conference and a membership ballot anyway to give the move extra legitimacy.

Incidentally the Guardian has a fascinating close-up of Nick Clegg’s negotiating crib-sheet here. Items listed as Lib Dem ‘red lines’ (ie, things we will not concede too far) include immigration, Europe and Trident. Make of his scribblings what you will – it sounds, though, like we won’t have long to wait before we hear the deal in full.