Can Nick Clegg hold the line on not offering any red lines?

by Stephen Tall on October 30, 2013

For years Lib Dem leaders have been plagued by the question, ‘Who will you support in the event of a hung parliament?’ In 2010, Nick Clegg straight-batted it pretty effectively, saying the Lib Dems would talk first to the party with the most seats and most votes. In 2015 he’ll stick to that trusty formula, with the added credibility of being able to say it’s exactly what he did last time – the voters remain the king-makers etc.

So unsurprisingly journalists have moved on. Their new favourite question, one we’ll hear more and more the close we get to May 2015, is ‘Will that policy be a red line?’

We’ve seen the latest episode today, with the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman reporting on Nick Clegg’s latest deputy prime minister’s press conference – Nick Clegg hints at HS2 red line for 2015 negotiations:

Asked whether HS2 was something Clegg would ever be prepared to compromise on in any future government, the Deputy Prime Minister replied:

‘No. I was up in Sheffield yesterday talking to business leaders and they are absolutely appalled at the way in which Labour appears to be betraying the North and it just beggars belief that a party that constantly parades itself as an authentic voice of the North of England is now prepared to turn its back on the businesses, the communities, the families which I think all the evidence shows will benefit disproportionately from investment in a high speed north south railway link. I just think it’s miserable, pathetic, that an idea which we inherited from Labour and in all good faith took forward because we thought that given they were the architects of it that they might support it, it becomes politically convenient to play games with it, they start playing games with it.’

Afterwards, aides insisted that this was not a red line and that ‘we are not going to start writing our manifesto’ now. But a source close to Clegg added that ‘he is not going to change his mind on HS2?, which sounds rather as though the Deputy Prime Minister has got the high speed rail link on his list of potential red lines for when he does come to decide them.

I’ve long been an HS2-sceptic — not least because back in January, when Norman Baker hailed it as a Lib Dem achievement in government, increased capacity wasn’t even mentioned as a justification for what was then billed as a £32bn investment — but that’s not my point here.

‘Red lines’ are tricky territory for our politicians. If Nick says, implicitly or explicitly, that HS2 (or any other policy) is a red line then he’s limiting his room for manoeuvre in any coalition negotiations. And after the party’s scarring experience of the tuition fees U-turn, we can hardly afford to offer more hostages to fortune by making categoric promises we find ourselves unable to keep.

But if Nick says HS2-or-whatever isn’t a red line then it will be taken as a signal that it’s up-for-grabs in coalition negotiations. It’ll look (however unfairly) like the Lib Dems aren’t fully committed to our own policies. The leadership will, therefore, come under increasing pressure from party activists to crayon red lines around pet Lib Dem causes – causes which might not be priorities shared by the voters and/or which will mean the party’s coalition negotiators find their hands tied.

My expectation is Nick Clegg will try hard to avoid pre-committing to any red lines. But I’m not sure that’s a line he’s going to be able to hold.

The one consolation is that, whereas in 2010 the media only ever asked the Lib Dem leader what he’d do in the event of a hung parliament (and neglected to ask either Gordon Brown or David Cameron), in 2015 the three party leaders will all have to come up with a good answer that doesn’t sound slippery. I’m just not sure what that answer can be.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.