I agree with David Cameron (!)

Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems are all over the place on their coalition “strategy”.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I rarely agree with David Cameron, but I can't help but concur with his line on the Lib Dems this morning:

He [Cameron] said the Lib Dems were in "complete muddle and confusion" as they had not spelt out what they would do if Labour won the most seats -- but comes second in terms of overall votes.

He's got a point, hasn't he? On Sunday, Clegg threw away months of hard work, having dodged and ducked questions about which party he would back ever since talk of a hung parliament went mainstream back in November. His careful formula was expressed on the BBC's Andrew Marr programme on 22 November 2009:

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. Whichever party have the strongest mandate from the British people . . . have the first right to seek to try and govern, either on their own or with others.

Even though he was then repeatedly asked to define "mandate" -- votes or seats? -- Clegg stuck to this carefully worded formula right up until the start of this election campaign on 6 April. But Cleggmania seems to have gone to his head -- and he threw away all the hard work he'd put into evading and dodging the "What do you mean by a mandate? Votes or seats?" question.

On yesterday's edition of Marr, elaborating on his statement in the Sunday Times, the Lib Dem leader said:

It seems to me that it's just preposterous, the idea that if a party comes third in terms of the number of votes, it still has the right to carry on squatting in No 10 and continue to lay claim to having the prime minister of the country.

. . . What I'm saying here is pointing at a very, very irrational possible outcome of our potty electoral system, which is that a party that has spectacularly lost the election . . . could nonetheless according to constitutional tradition and convention still lay claim to providing the prime minister of the country.

The genie is out of the bottle -- and Cameron is right to point it out. Once Clegg has said the Lib Dems won't back Labour if the latter comes third (but wins most seats), he has to explain whether they'd back Labour if it comes second (but wins most seats). Clegg's ducking and diving will no longer do.

So the Lib Dems do seem muddled and confused. Clegg's answer, says the Indie's Simon Carr:

. . . certainly surprised a senior member of the Liberal Democrat command I mentioned it to later. "Surely he said that he wouldn't support Gordon if Labour got fewer votes?" Nope, he wouldn't support the Labour Party. "I'll have to go and watch it," the Liberal Democrat said.

Maybe it was a mistake. Because then Marr asked what he, Clegg, would do if Labour changed the leader after the election. He didn't say: "I repeat, if the party lost the popular vote, I wouldn't keep it in office." He said instead: "Here we get into the 'what-if' territory that I find very difficult."

And he went back to earlier ideas of collaborating with the party that would deliver Liberal Democrat manifesto commitments. But he couldn't do that with Labour polling fewer votes than the Tories because he ruled it out.

There is another important point worth raising: why does Nick Clegg think Gordon Brown would automatically lose the right to remain in Downing Street if Labour came third? Why do the Lib Dems, who have for so long rightly argued for the need for a government to secure more than 50 per cent support from the electorate, now seem so obsessed with pluralities and not majorites, that is to say, with who is first, second or third, rather than with who can command majority support?

The fact is that if -- and, I admit, it remains a big "if" -- the Lib Dems decided to enter into a formal coalition with Labour on 7 May, then such a coalition government, with Brown in charge, would -- according to current polling -- command the support of more than half the electorate.

In fact, such a coalition would have a greater popular mandate, and reflect the votes of a higher proportion of voters, than any government since the Second World War. So why couldn't Brown then stay on in No 10?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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