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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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