Nick Clegg, kingmaker?

The Lib Dems' options in a hung parliament must not be looked at in isolation

The fight for the general election has begun, and talk of a possible hung parliament continues to rumble in the background. Amid the rhetoric about fighting "every inch of the way" (as Gordon Brown said yesterday), Jackie Ashley says in the Guardian this morning that behind the scenes, politicians from both camps are discussing the options for compromise.

A kingmaker may be emerging: Nick Clegg.

Clegg has already said that, in the event of a hung parliament, he would back whichever party had won. But in our archaic voting system, this might not be clear-cut -- the Conservatives could win more votes than Labour but not quite enough to secure more parliamentary seats.

In this eventuality, Clegg must decide whom to back. This poses yet another set of questions for Brown's beleagured leadership. As Ashley writes:

Clegg [would not] find it easy to agree a power-sharing deal with Brown himself: the gap in style and age is just too great.

So Labour ministers are talking of a scenario in which, if no party won the election, Brown might stand down quickly. He would then be replaced by a more Lib-friendly leader, prepared to go further on constitutional reform; and a deal would be agreed, leading to that "realignment of the left" that has long been a staple of Guardian columns.

The New Statesman has consistently argued for a progressive realignment. As our leader argues this week, Labour will always be the more natural ally of the Lib Dems.

It's an interesting debate whether, in the event of a hung parliament, Brown's departure would be a requirement for a Lib-Lab pact.

Quite apart from the personal contrasts between Clegg and Brown, there is the problem of image. Some might argue that the public's frustration with Labour has come from disillusionment with the political system as a whole. But Brown has, in many ways, come to be emblematic of a tired government. Could the Lib Dems really be seen to be propping him up?

As my colleague George Eaton pointed out last week, Brown's tribalism may preclude a harmonious pact in any event, despite his apparent attempt to court the Lib Dems on the Andrew Marr show yesterday.

At PoliticalBetting, Mike Smithson suggests that James Purnell could be the man for the job, being "of the same generation as Clegg . . . [and] set to retain his Stalybridge seat". Certainly, Purnell's resignation last summer separated him from the current leadership of Labour -- as opposed to Harriet Harman or David Miliband, other names that have been touted.

But these arguments, by focusing on the Lib Dems and the decision to be made by Clegg, risk overlooking Labour and Brown's own psychology.

While a hung parliament would not present a victory in the usual sense of the word, it's entirely possible that Brown -- who has already described Labour as the underdog in this campaign ("When you are behind in the polls you have got to regard yourself as the fighter") -- could view the fight back from crushing defeat as an endorsement of his ability to lead the country in a power-sharing agreement.

The latest YouGov poll for the Telegraph showed the Conservatives with a lead over Labour of 35 points to 26. It remains to be seen whether the lead narrows further and a hung parliament becomes a reality. In any event, the multifaceted discussion of Brown's leadership looks set to run and run.

 

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

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Should London leave the UK?

Almost 60 per cent of Londoners voted to stay in the EU. Is it time for the city to say good by to Brexit Britain and go it alone?

Amid the shocked dismay of Brexit on Friday morning, there was some small, vindictive consolation to be had from the discomfort of Boris Johnson as he left his handsome home in EU-loving Islington to cat-calls from inflamed north London europhiles. They weren’t alone in their displeasure at the result. Soon, a petition calling for “Londependence” had gathered tens of thousands of names and Sadiq Khan, Johnson’s successor as London mayor, was being urged to declare the capital a separate city-state that would defiantly remain in the EU.

Well, he did have a mandate of a kind: almost 60 per cent of Londoners thought the UK would be Stronger In. It was the largest Remain margin in England – even larger than the hefty one of 14 per cent by which Khan defeated Tory eurosceptic Zac Goldsmith to become mayor in May – and not much smaller than Scotland’s. Khan’s response was to stress the importance of retaining access to the single market and to describe as “crucial” London having an input into the renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU, alongside Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It’s possible to take a dim view of all this. Why should London have a special say in the terms on which the UK withdraws from the EU when it ended up on the wrong side of the people’s will? Calling for London to formally uncouple from the rest of the UK, even as a joke to cheer gloomy Inners up, might be seen as vindicating small-town Outer resentment of the metropolis and its smug elites. In any case, it isn’t going to happen. No, really. There will be no sovereign Greater London nation with its own passport, flag and wraparound border with Home Counties England any time soon.

Imagine the practicalities. Currency wouldn’t be a problem, as the newborn city-state would convert to the euro in a trice, but there would be immediate secessionist agitation in the five London boroughs of 32 that wanted Out: Cheam would assert its historic links with Surrey; stallholders in Romford market would raise the flag of Essex County Council. Then there is the Queen to think about. Plainly, Buckingham Palace could no longer be the HQ of a foreign head of state, but given the monarch’s age would it be fair to turf her out?

Step away from the fun-filled fantasy though, and see that Brexit has underlined just how dependent the UK is on London’s economic power and the case for that power to be protected and even enhanced. Greater London contains 13 per cent of the UK’s population, yet generates 23 per cent of its economic output. Much of the tax raised in London is spent on the rest of the country – 20 per cent by some calculations – largely because it contains more business and higher earners. The capital has long subsidised the rest the UK, just as the EU has funded attempts to regenerate its poorer regions.

Like it or not, foreign capital and foreign labour have been integral to the burgeoning of the “world city” from which even the most europhobic corners of the island nation benefit in terms of public spending. If Leaver mentality outside the capital was partly about resentment of “rich London”, with its bankers and big businesses – handy targets for Nigel Farage – and fuelled by a fear of an alien internationalism London might symbolise, then it may prove to have been sadly self-defeating.

Ensuring that London maintains the economic resilience it has shown since the mid-Nineties must now be a priority for national government, (once it decides to reappear). Pessimists predict a loss of jobs, disinvestment and a decrease in cultural energy. Some have mooted a special post-Brexit deal for the capital that might suit the interests of EU member states too – London’s economy is, after all, larger than that of Denmark, not to mention larger than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – though what that might be and how that could happen remain obscure.

There is, though, no real barrier to greater devolution of powers to London other than the political will of central government. Allowing more decisions about how taxes raised in the capital are spent in the capital, both at mayoral and borough level, would strengthen the city in terms of managing its own growth, addressing its (often forgotten) poverty and enhancing the skills of its workforce.

Handing down control over the spending of property taxes, as set out in an influential 2013 report by the London Finance Commission set up by Mayor Johnson, would be a logical place to start. Mayor Khan’s manifesto pledged to campaign for strategic powers over further education and health service co-ordination, so that these can be better tailored to London’s needs. Since Brexit, he has underlined the value of London securing greater command of its own destiny.

This isn’t just a London thing, and neither should it be. Plans are already in place for other English cities and city regions to enjoy more autonomy under the auspices of directly elected “metro mayors”, notably for Greater Manchester and Liverpool and its environs. One of the lessons of Brexit for the UK is that many people have felt that decisions about their futures have been taken at too great a distance from them and with too little regard for what they want and how they feel.

That lesson holds for London too – 40 per cent is a large minority. Boris Johnson was an advocate of devolution to London when he was its mayor and secured some, thanks to the more progressive side of Tory localism. If he becomes prime minister, it would be good for London and for the country as a whole if he remembered that.  

Dave Hill writes the Guardian’s On London column. Find him on Twitter as @DaveHill.