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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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.