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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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