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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.