Our worst nightmare? Peter Kellner’s scenario 3: “Lib Dems choose who’s the PM”

by Stephen Tall on December 16, 2014

cameron clegg miliband 2Just over a year ago I wrote a piece titled Nightmare scenarios: what are the 2015 election results the Lib Dems, Tories and Labour most dread?

In it, I argued that the trickiest prospect for the Lib Dems would be an evenly poised general election outcome in which the Lib Dems held the balance of power:

In the nightmare scenario [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.

(Note this isn’t the worst possible outcome: that would be the Lib Dems losing so many seats we have no influence at all. But at least in that situation we’d know what we had to do next: go into opposition and re-build.)

This scenario is one of four outlined by YouGov’s Peter Kellner in The Times yesterday:

kellner gen election scenarios

Here’s what he had to say over at the YouGov site about scenario 3 (Labour and Conservatives tied on 290 seats, Lib Dems with 40 seats, making a coalition with either possible):

They will still be a major force at Westminster, unlike Ukip and the SNP, which will have seen their fortunes fade in the weeks leading up to the election. Mr Clegg has a genuine balance of power. He is able to deliver a majority to either Labour or the Conservatives.

What he won’t have is the option that many of his activists might prefer, of going into opposition in order to revive their radical credentials unsullied by the inevitable compromises of office. The public – and the financial markets – are unlikely to look kindly on a party that plunges Britain into an era of instability by refusing to do any kind of deal with either Labour or the Conservatives. The Lib Dems would be in the position of a vegetarian forced to choose beef or lamb – and not being allowed to reject both.

However, it may be some days before the shape of the new government becomes clear. Again, as the incumbent Prime Minister, Cameron could have the first go at assembling a parliamentary majority – provided that Conservative MPs don’t eject him first. Tory backbenchers may decide that he has blown his chance to win the election and think they have a better chance in future under someone else – Boris Johnson? Theresa May? A. N. Other?

However, if Cameron, having lost the confidence of his MPs, resigns as Prime Minister, it is a moot point whether the Queen will invite Miliband or the new Conservative leader to form a government. In order to avoid dragging Her Majesty into controversy, there will be intense pressure at Westminster to assemble a stable majority, and so make the Queen’s decision straightforward. Again, the Lib Dems will be forced in practice to abandon the luxury of a spell in opposition.

Such a scenario would make 2010 look easy.

Of course, this, and the other three sketched out, are among many possible outcomes. It’s impossible to know yet what awaits; and just as impossible to know now quite how the outcome will look and feel in the days after 7th May. Which is why, as I’ve argued before, we need to keep our options open in the event of a hung parliament:

Nick Clegg has publicly ruled out the option of a ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement in the event no single party wins a majority in May 2015 (ie, the party won’t join a formal coalition but wouldn’t bring down a minority government either). I can understand why he’s sceptical of such an arrangement – as I’ve argued before, “It seems to me a way of getting all the pain of coalition with little of the gain of being in government.” But we need to keep all options available to maintain maximum negotiating leverage. What matters most is how we can deliver liberal policies in the next parliament. That’s most likely to happen in a full coalition, but not at any price. Tim Farron was spot-on to argue, “When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe, and let the other party believe, that there is a point at which you would walk away, and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind, that is something we all have to consider.”

* 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.

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