Would Clegg’s head be the price of a Lab-Lib coalition?

Shadow cabinet minister John Denham suggests that the Liberal Democrats would need a new leader.

This week brought the "revelation" that Nick Clegg insisted on Gordon Brown's head as the price of a Lab-Lib coalition but could Labour turn the tables on the Lib Dems at the next election?

Should Labour emerge as the single largest party in a hung parliament, many will want to force Clegg's departure before any coalition is formed. In an interview in the latest edition of Fabian Review, John Denham, the shadow communities secretary, suggests that Labour could not work with a Clegg-led Lib Dem party:

It would require a new leader and a new politics. The idea that the Lib Dems can do this now, and then, in a few years, say they'd like to be friends with Labour when they are fundamentally unchanged is out of the question. Many people, including electoral reformers like me who always thought there could be a centre-left coalition with the Lib Dems, have to understand they have taken a historic position which puts them outside that game until they change profoundly.

That Denham, a Labour pluralist who supported attempts to form a "progressive coalition", feels this way suggests that many others in the party do, too. For now, the Lib Dems remain surprisingly united behind Clegg. As Richard Grayson points out in his cover story for the latest issue, the trauma of losing Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell in quick succession has made the Liberal Democrats extremely leadership-loyal.

But Clegg's fate is now almost entirely intertwined with that of the coalition, which could leave him dangerously exposed if, as expected, the forthcoming spending cuts make the government rapidly unpopular. Should the Lib Dems suffer significant losses in the May 2011 local elections, we will start to hear the first proper rumblings of discontent.

Either way, it makes sense for Labour to begin planning war-gaming scenarios for a hung parliament now. So which Lib Dem figure could replace Clegg and win over a rejuvenated Labour Party? Step forward, Charles Kennedy.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.