Clegg must give a straight answer

Hints are not enough -- the Liberal Democrats must clarify their position on a power-sharing agreeme

Quite the centre of attention yesterday, Nick Clegg moved today to make his voice heard amid the cacophony, writing an article in the Times, and declaring on Radio 4's Today programme that "I'm not a kingmaker . . . The people are the kingmakers."

Yesterday's speculation centred on what the party would do in the event of a hung parliament -- something our Leader this week calls on the Liberal Democrat leader to clarify.

But did he clarify anything at all?

Ostensibly, he remains committed to the position of "equidistance" from both parties, established before Christmas. His Times piece, along with the usual Lib Dem fodder that a vote for them is not wasted, shows a real -- and probably valid -- edgy feeling that the very public attempts by both Cameron and Brown to align themselves with the Lib Dems could remove a portion of their vote.

But what about the question on everyone's lips: Where would the Lib Dems' alliances lie if a power-sharing agreement became necessary? Despite the fighting talk that "the Liberal Democrats are not for sale", Clegg remains frustratingly reticent, writing:

We will respect the will of the public. The voters are in charge and the decision is theirs. If voters decide that no party deserves an overall majority, then self-evidently the party with the strongest mandate will have a moral right to be the first to seek to govern on its own or, if it chooses, to seek alliances with other parties.

Come on, Nick. This is spectacularly vague -- as I pointed out yesterday, it all depends on how you define the will of the public.

His second point is that, in the event of a hung parliament, the actions of the Lib Dems will be governed by their commitment to four central principles: fair taxes, a fair start for children (with smaller class sizes and a "pupil premium" favouring poorer children), a sustainable economy, and clean politics.

But hang on a minute -- aren't some of these goals completely incompatible with those of the Tories? The fair-tax proposal centres on raising the point at which people start paying income tax to £10,000, by increasing taxes on the rich. This doesn't sound like a great fit with cuts to inheritance tax that would enrich the country's wealthiest 3,000 estates.

And on cleaning up politics, Clegg says he wants to "stop tax avoiders from standing for parliament, sitting in the House of Lords or donating to political parties". I can't help but wonder whether this sounds a little pointed, given the dubious tax status of Lord Ashcroft, Conservative peer and donor extraordinaire.

As my colleague James Macintyre suggests in his fantasy politics piece in this week's magazine, Labour is the more natural ally for the Lib Dems. Clegg's comments today imply that he feels the same way -- on the Today programme, asked if this was a "centre-left agenda", he replied: "It's a fair agenda, yes." In yet another tantalising hint, he said of the Tories: "At the moment, of course, the differences are more striking than the synthetic similarities."

From a political perspective, perhaps it is astute -- necessary, even -- for Clegg to hedge his bets, refusing to publicly rule out a union with the Conservative Party now in case the Lib Dems come to regret it later. But, as he wrote today: "In the event of a hung parliament, the British people also deserve to know how the Liberal Democrats will respond."

Everything Clegg has said today implies that a Lib-Lab pact is more likely than a Conservative one. Now he must come out and say so.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

European Parliament
Show Hide image

"Do not let us down": Scottish MEP receives standing ovation after begging European Parliament

While Alyn Smith won applause, the Scottish Government moved behind the scenes. 

The Scottish National Party MEP Alyn Smith was not exactly a household name before the EU referendum. 

But his impassioned speech to his fellow MEPs begging them to help Scotland stay in the EU has caught the imagination of many Remain voters.

In a session where UKIP's Nigel Farage told MEPs "virtually none of you have ever done a proper job in your lives, Smith struck a very different tone.

Waving a sheet of paper showing Scottish voters had voted to Remain, he said: "I want my country to be internationalist, co-operative, ecological, fair, European. And the people of Scotland, along with the people of Northern Ireland, and the people of London, and lots of people in Wales and England also, voted to Remain within our family of nations."

He urged MEPs to negotiate with cool heads and warm hearts.

And then, raising his voice, he told MEPs: "Please, remember this. Scotland did not let you down. Please, I beg you, cher colleagues, do not let Scotland down now."

MEPs rose to applaud the heartfelt speech. And meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Holyrood, the Scottish Government had hit the phones.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced she would be meeting European Parliament President Martin Schultz on Wednesday.

Although the SNP's promise of an independent European Scotland was shot down during the Scottish referendum, it seems this time round MEPs are more sympathetic.

Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgium PM, who leads the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe parliamentary group has already tweeted: "It's wrong that Scotland might be taken out of [the] EU."