Why the Lib Dems should avoid "confidence and supply"

Such a deal would satisfy neither supporters nor opponents of the coalition.

The idea of a "confidence and supply" agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, first mooted after the 2010 election, has re-entered political discussion after the almighty bust-up over House of Lords reform. The expectation on both sides is that the coalition will end in 2014, a year out from the next election, or possibly even earlier. Conservative MP Graham Brady,  the chairman of the 1922 committee, told Radio 4's Westminster Hour last night:

I think it would be logical and sensible for both parties to be able to present their separate vision to the public in time for the public to form a clear view before the election.

Of course, it is always possible that that moment of separation could come sooner. It's very difficult to predict when that might be.

The Lib Dems would then agree to support a minority Tory government in votes of no confidence ("confidence") and on any Budget (or "supply") measure.

It's arguable that the Lib Dems should have adopted such an arrangement from the start, rather than entered coalition with the Conservatives. Whilst Nick Clegg's party would still have had to support George Osborne's "emergency Budget" and the Spending Review, it could have avoided breaking its totemic pledge to cap tuition fees and could have voted against the government's NHS reforms.

But a confidence and supply deal with the Tories would now be the worst of all possible worlds for the Lib Dems. It would do nothing to placate those voters who despise them for propping up a Conservative government (indeed, this charge would have even more resonance), whilst antagonising those who believe they were right to enter coalition "in the national interest". Clegg's party would still have to vote for a Conservative Budget, brimming with welfare cuts, with even less guarantee of concessions elsewhere. A pact with the Tories would, to borrow a phrase, be a "miserable little compromise".

There are good arguments for the Lib Dems remaining in the coalition until 2015 and for them withdrawing completely before the next election. But there are none for entering the purgatory of confidence and supply.

Update: Academic Tim Bale, the author of the excellent The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, has alerted me to his research on the subject, which confirms that "confidence and supply" is frequently a curse for small parties.

The coalition is now likely to end before 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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