The man who would be kingmaker

Which way would Clegg turn in a hung parliament?

After Sunday's fascinating Observer poll, all the talk today is of how the main parties would fare in a hung parliament. Nick Clegg's interview with Andrew Marr has been deconstructed by the press in an attempt to discover the Lib Dem leader's true intentions.

Clegg told Marr:

I start from a very simple first principle. It is not Gordon Brown or David Cameron or Nick Clegg who are kingmakers in British politics, it's the British people. The votes of the British people are what should determine what happens. Whichever party has the strongest mandate from the British people, it seems to me obvious in a democracy they have the first right to seek to try and govern, either on their own or with others.

I agree with the Guardian's Allegra Stratton, who concludes: "Clegg's comments show he regards the number of votes won rather than the number of seats to be paramount." (We should expect nothing less from an electoral reformer.)

Under this interpretation, Clegg would be open to the possibility of a deal with the Tories, who remain on track to win the largest number of votes. He's likely to face intense pressure from a largely conservative press to explore the option, at least, of an alliance with Cameron.

But could Clegg really do a deal with the anti-PR, Eurosceptic Cameron? The Lib Dems pride themselves on being the most democratic of the main parties and Clegg would run into fierce grass-roots opposition, notably from former members of the SDP.

It is also worth remembering that, by convention, Gordon Brown has the constitutional right to form a government, even with fewer MPs than Cameron.

As Jackie Ashley notes in her column today: "[T]he precedent of the general election in February 1974 reminds us that Cameron, even with more MPs, would not have an automatic right to make the first move. Constitutionally he would still be leader of the opposition, as Harold Wilson was, despite Labour winning four more seats than the Conservatives."

Still, Clegg would be deeply reluctant to act as the life-support machine for a Labour government that had been rejected by most voters.

The most likely outcome may be a minority Conservative administration that goes to the country again before the end of 2010 in search of a working majority.

In order to prevent this outcome, Brown must prepare to offer the Lib Dems a referendum on proportional representation. The old tribalist will be forced to become a born-again pluralist.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.