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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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