The Lib Dems promise to back the 'largest' party - but do they mean votes or seats?

It’s entirely possible that Labour could end up with the most seats but a smaller share of the vote than the Tories.

So then, how do we, under the crazy first-past-the-post electoral system that we’re lumbered with, define the word 'largest'.

I only ask, because, as Labour’s opinion poll ratings start to shrink and suddenly they start thinking that perhaps, this time, it would be best to do a bit of planning for how a coalition agreement might be hammered out, rather than trying to sort it on the fly (prompted by the publication of Andrew Adonis’s new book on the chaos that occurred last time), it suddenly seems a very relevant question.

In 2010, we in the Lib Dems were very clear that in any potential coalition negotiations, we would talk to the largest party first; and by largest we meant 'most seats'. Andrew Stunnell (part of the Lib Dem negotiation team last time round) has now come out and said the same will hold true next time, should the same come to pass.

But is 'most seats' actually the right answer? Given the bias in the system, it’s entirely possible that Labour could end up with the most seats but a smaller share of the vote than the Tories. Under that scenario, how best to decide who gets first bite of the cherry – especially in a party like ours that believes passionately in a proportional voting system?

And suppose the combined UKIP-Tory vote suddenly gives them a perceived mandate; Monday’s ICM poll gave them 46 per cent of the vote, compared to a 'progressive' share of 45 per cent. Who has the largest mandate under that scenario? It's a point the Tories can’t really make, as the opposite was true in 2010, but the Lib Dems could and should.

Given that Monday’s ICM poll results would leave Labour with a massive 68 seat majority despite only getting 34 per cent of the vote, it’s a moot point – how the Tories must regret the loss of the boundary changes now. But UKIP getting 18 per cent of the popular vote and 0 seats would surely call the legitimacy of any mandate into question?

Of course, you’ll say, this all presumes that the Lib Dems have any seats left to form a coalition with. But even the ICM score of 11 per cent, our lowest share with them since 1997, would still give us 35 seats on a uniform swing. If the UKIP vote starts to bleed back to the Tories, suddenly that share looks very important.

There’ll be a lot of chatter, speculation and positioning between now and the 2015 election. But come the morning of 8 May, how the leader of the Lib Dems interprets the word 'largest' is likely to have a profound impact on who forms the next government.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.