I disagreed with Nick. And I was wrong. Maybe.

by Stephen Tall on May 12, 2010

It’s two months since I wrote a post here on Lib Dem Voice with the self-explanatory title: 5 reasons Nick Clegg should rule out a coalition now. It’s interesting in the light of the last 24 hours to re-visit my reason number one: “A coalition is a non-starter, so let’s just rule it out now”.

So what’s changed?

The electorate have spoken

Well, the most obvious issue is the election result itself. The voters have spoken, and been quite clear that they don’t trust any one of the parties to govern the country alone. That in itself should give any political party pause for thought.

We have had to listen

The second factor is the Lib Dem result: it was disappointing (as in their own ways were also the Tories’ and Labour’s results). Although we gained more votes than at any time since the Alliance, for the first time since 1992 the Lib Dems lost seats. Quite clearly the party was squeezed. A second election following closely on from last week’s would almost have certainly seen a further squeeze in the Lib Dem vote.

After the glorious possibilities of ‘Cleggmania’, the party would have been once again consigned to the sidelines of politics, able only to give a running commentary on what was going wrong. Again, that prospect is enough to give any political party pause for thought.

The only choice you have when there is no choice is the right one

The third factor is that this really was a no-win situation for Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, as I explained here on Saturday. Whichever way the party turned, we were going to provoke outrage from some quarters. All of us knew this, and in a curious way it’s proved almost liberating. If you know that there’s no solution that’s going to be universally popular it allows you to focus fully on what you think is the right and responsible thing to do.

Make no mistake: Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems are taking the riskiest, most courageous, decision of our political lives. It’s not such a big deal for the Tories: a coalition government doesn’t threaten their future. The Lib Dems are putting everything on the line for the sake of stable government and a real liberal influence in the years ahead. It could blow up in our faces. Or it could be the making of the party.

What more could have been done?

The fourth and final factor is this: the Lib Dem negotiating team has clearly done a quite amazing job. Of course they won’t have won every concession the party would have wanted. But given the hand they were dealt by the election results, it is hard to see how the Lib Dems could possibly have extracted more from this deal. That doesn’t mean this isn’t still a scary venture; but at least we have the reassurance of knowing that the party leadership has not just rolled over at the sniff of power.

And here’s the ‘maybe’ …

So does that mean I was wrong to argue the Lib Dems should have ruled out a coalition before the election? In my defence, I think the party was buffetted off course during the election campaign by the media obsession with a hung parliament. We almost certainly lost MPs as a result of being unable to focus attention on our four key election themes of fairness. We were in part squeezed by wavering voters ultimately deciding to pick Labour or Tory for fear of not knowing what we would do in the event of a balanced parliament.

But – and it’s a big but – had we ruled out a coalition, today would not have been possible. We would not be seeing a cabinet formed with a Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, nor seeing Lib Dem policies enacted, and the prospect of some electoral and constitutional reform.

Will that be enough to make Britain a better, more liberal, country? Will that be enough to enable the Lib Dems to pick ourselves up from our disappointing election result last week? None of us knows. Yet. It’s going to be a bumpy, but potentially thrilling, ride.