Nick Robinson and the rainbow coalition

“Audacious” move leaves BBC man dazed, if not confused.

With the possible exception of his Sky News counterpart, Adam Boulton, the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, looked like the most shocked man in Britain following Gordon Brown's Downing Street announcement yesterday afternoon.

"Audacious" was the word Robinson used on the television and on his blog, but you suspected something stronger was going through his mind. Since last Friday, Robinson has barely deviated from a line that has David Cameron in No 10 as a result of either a formal or an informal arrangement with the Lib Dems. A rainbow coalition was not in his script.

It may not come to pass, but it is strange that the possibility of a Lib-Lab deal wasn't given more airspace until yesterday.

In a post last night, Robinson outlined all the obstacles in the way of Brown's power play. He asked:

- is it legitimate for Gordon Brown and Labour to stay in office, having lost this election?
- is it right for a new prime minister to be chosen, not by voters, but by Labour Party members?

Well, I guess it depends how you interpret the words "legitimate" and "right", but constitutionally the answer to both questions is an emphatic "Yes". Here is Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University, writing in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman to provide the historical context:

The conventions reflect the fundamental principle of parliamentary government: that parliament decides who should govern. A prime minister in office is not defeated until the Commons votes him out. Until 1868, it was common practice for incumbents to test the opinion of parliament after a general election. That year, Disraeli became the first to break from this tradition -- he thought it pointless to meet parliament when his opponents enjoyed an overall majority.

With the development of a two-party system, it became customary for incumbents to resign if the election resulted in an overall majority for the opposition. But, in 1885-86, 1892 and 1923-24, with hung parliaments, prime ministers -- Conservative in each case -- waited until parliament had met and then produced a Queen's Speech that was, in effect, a vote of confidence. It is for parliament, not the bankers or the Daily Mail, to decide who should govern.

Robinson signs off the post by asking of Nick Clegg:

Does he now stick to his chosen path and do a deal with the Conservatives to the fury of many in his party or does he switch to Labour, risking the wrath of those who will accuse him of creating a "coalition of losers"?

"His chosen path"? Clegg always said he would talk to the Conservatives first, as the party with the "strongest mandate" to govern. But a corollary of this is not necessarily a "deal with the Conservatives".

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.