Nightmare scenarios: what are the 2015 election results the Lib Dems, Tories and Labour most dread?

by Stephen Tall on November 15, 2013

clegg cameron milibandHere’s a cheerful topic for a Friday: what are the worst results you could imagine for each of the three main parties at the next general election?

Well, for the Lib Dems it’s obvious – we get mullered, reduced to 24 seats or fewer as predicted by Mori founder Bob Worcester. I don’t think things will be that bad, or anything like. For what it’s worth my current guesstimate would be in the range 35-45.

I don’t think that’s our nightmare scenario though. Don’t get me wrong, losing more than half our seats (from 57 down to 24) would be bad, depressing and worse besides. But at least in those circumstances we’d be pretty clear what we needed to do: return to opposition, lick our wounds, and then prepare for 2020.

Here’s what I think our nightmare scenario is… A second hung parliament in which the Conservatives edge the popular vote, Labour wins most seats, while the Lib Dems retain, say, 40 seats, enough to make a Coalition with either possible.

Our decision in 2010 wasn’t, actually, a very difficult one. Labour had very clearly been rejected by the voters after 13 years in power, winning just 29% of the vote to the Tories’ 37%. And in spite of Andrew Adonis’s protestations to the contrary, a deal between Labour and the Lib Dems was never a viable prospect. So we either accepted David Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive offer” or we walked away and confirmed the public’s suspicions Lib Dems aren’t really very serious about power.

In the nightmare scenario, though, we would have a genuine choice open to us: a second coalition with the Tories or a Lib-Lab pact.

Do a deal with the Tories – if that’s even possible, given the Cameron modernising agenda is dead in the water – and we risk saying goodbye to what remains of our progressive vote (and another tranche of our membership). Do a deal with Labour – if that’s even possible, given the bile spilled since 2010 and Labour’s tendency to tribalism – and we put at risk our remaining MPs the vast bulk of whom have Tories in second place.

There is of course a third option: do a deal with neither and allow a minority government to be formed. But that comes with the high likelihood of a second general election not long afterwards where we run the risk of getting squeezed.

I’m all for extending choice. But, to be honest, at the next election I’d rather the voters didn’t leave us with more than one option.

What of the other two parties? The nightmare scenario for both of them is the same. It’s not a hung parliament followed by a coalition with the Lib Dems (after all, they’d out-number us 7:1). It’s not even a minority government with the ever-present threat of a second general election (they both have the resources to survive that). It’s a slender majority government: that’s both their nightmares.

For the Tories, a majority of 10 would mean being constantly held to ransom by their oddest right-wing MPs. For Labour, a majority of 10 would see Ed Miliband even more reliant on his party’s Unite-sponsored MPs and would likely be dragged further to the left and away from the mainstream.

I am sure both Cameron and Miliband would, in those circumstances, like to do a deal with the Lib Dems. I am equally sure their own parties won’t permit it. They would however, have little choice but to deal with the Lib Dems to get any contentious legislation through. ‘In power but not in office’ may not be the stuff of dreams – but it might be a whole lot better than our worst nightmare.

* 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.