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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.