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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.