Talk of coalition divorce is an expression of Tory hope, not fear

While the Lib Dems have much to lose from an early end to the coalition, the Tories can easily see the appeal of trying to govern alone.

Nick Clegg is eager to reassure anyone who is listening that he is committed to coalition for the full five-year term. He made the point in a speech and a press conference today:

Anyone who is wargaming about what may or may not happen in my party is wasting their time. I am going to be leader of this party up to, through and beyond the next general election. The Liberal Democrats despite all the predictions to the contrary have proved to be the calmest, most resilient and most united party in British politics today.

Clegg can hardly say anything different on this most delicate of topics. The tiniest hint that the two coalition parties might go separate ways triggers a frenzy of speculation – as indeed happened when David Cameron alluded in vague terms to such a prospect in his recent interview with Total Politics magazine.

That was not the first hint that coalition dissolution is being contemplated in the upper echelons of the Tory party. (The Conservative back benches, where Clegg is despised, ponder little else.) Someone briefed the Times that contingency plans are being drawn up by senior Conservative aides to accommodate the prospect of the Lib Dems ditching Clegg, choosing a new leader and racing off to the opposition benches.

This is purest mischief aimed at destabilising Clegg. It is a whole lot easier to find Tories who will speculate sagely about the precariousness of the Lib Dem leader than it is to find Lib Dems who insist on despatching Clegg. And it is much easier to find Conservatives who speak with mock alarm about the likelihood of their coalition partners flaking out than it is to find Lib Dems on the verge of flaking.

The reality is that Clegg and his MPs have a lot more to lose from a premature end to their governing partnership. Since they cannot rely on protest voters any more, they have to present themselves as a technocratic party of sensible, centrist government. (This will be offered in contrast to a fiscally unreliable Labour Party and a Conservative Party distracted from national priorities by flights of fanatical fancy.) If the Lib Dems marched away from power they would reinforce every caricature of weak-willed unreliability that their enemies use to damn them – and on the eve of a general election. It would be madness and they know it.

The Tories, by contrast, can easily see the appeal of trying to govern alone. They can also see the advantages of having the Lib Dems back in opposition competing with Labour for a soft left vote. The Tories could still propose legislation as a minority government and then challenge Clegg (or his successor) to do the "responsible" thing by siding with his old partners. They could offer up bills confected explicitly to draw political dividing lines – an EU referendum, even tougher welfare cuts, re-writing human rights law, scrapping employment protections alleged to strangle small enterprises in red tape. Anything that passes can be sold as leadership in adverse circumstances and whatever fails can be used to make the case for a majority Tory government after the election "to do the job properly."

There are Conservative modernisers who also envisage using such a scenario to put forward surprisingly liberal measures – something conspicuously compassionate – to dispel the impression that a Tory administrated un-tethered from the Lib Dems would be a menace to society. In other words, there is a growing feeling that a period of minority government could be used by Cameron to use the parliamentary timetable as one long party political broadcast in the run-up to an election. The obvious downsides to this strategy is the acrid stench of cynicism it would release and the possibility that it makes a Lib-Lab pact look inevitable after 2015.

Still, it is worth remembering that when Tories speculate about Lib Dems pulling out of the coalition it may not be an expression of concern – as they like to pretend – but of hope. 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg sit together as they visit the Wandsworth Day Nursery in London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The New Statesman 2016 local and devolved elections liveblog

Results and analysis from elections across the United Kingdom. 

Welcome to the New Statesman's elections liveblog. Results will be coming in from the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, local elections in England, and the mayoral contests in London, Salford, Bristol and Liverpool. Hit refresh for updates!

00:56: Labour have been whomped by the SNP in Rutherglen, with James Kelly losing his seat by close to 4,000 votes (that's a lot in a Holyrood constituency). 

00:51: That is really a thumping win for the Liberal Democrats. Elsewhere, I am hearing bad news for Labour in Portsmouth, good news in Norwich, where they believe they may have taken three seats off the Greens, and that the Tories have made gains in Nuneaton, which is Labour-dominated at a local level but has sent a Conservative to Westminster since 2010. 

00:48: Rats! The Liberal Democrats have held Orkney, and I am down £20. They are up 32 per cent of the vote there. 

00:45: Turnout from Ogmore, where Labour are fighting both an Assembly seat and a by-election to, is above 40 per cent. Labour are confident of holding it. 

00:42: Labour have gained a seat from the Conservatives in Birmingham and are doing real damage to the Liberal Democrats in Newcastle. My comment about the Liberal Democrat revival is aging really, really well. 

00:40: Scotland incoming! Rutherglen result imminent! Scotpocalypse! Scotpocalypse! 

00:38: McDonnell is beasting Nicky Morgan on BBC doing a very good "more in sorrow than in anger" routine. 

00:34: For an alternative view on Zac Goldsmith, Andrew Boff, a Conservative member of the London Assembly, said this earlier today on Newsnight:

"I don't think it was dog whistle because you can't hear a dog whistle. Everyone could hear this"

00:31: Duncan Smith droning on about how Zac Goldsmith's campaign is not at all racist, oh no. I'm not getting paid enough for this. 

00:29: Iain Duncan Smith has appeared on screen. He says he is "hopeful" that Zac Goldsmith will be elected tonight. In Wales, the Conservatives have walked out of the count in marginal Delyn. Labour are sounding fairly pleased about that, as you'd expect.

00:27: I have made two discoveries. The firsts is that the lights in the New Statesman offices are motion-sensitive. The second is that sitting and typing is not quite enough motion. (It's just me here tonight.)

00:26: Council seats so far: Labour have 59, the Liberal Democrats have four, Ukip have none, the Greens have none. The SNP are hopeful of picking up all the Scottish Parliament seats in Motherwell and Glasgow, but Edinburgh is trickier territory. 

00:25: Speaking of bets...I look likely to owe Wings Over Scotland £20 (I bet on a clean sweep for the SNP in the constituencies), as Labour are buoyant about Edinburgh Southern and the Liberal Democrats are hopeful in Edinburgh Western.

00:19: John McDonnell doing a good job putting a brave face on some grim early numbers for Labour. This line about needing only do better than a general election is nonsense, psephologically speaking but he's making it sound like good sense. A validation of Jeremy Corbyn's decison to ignore even some of his closest allies and put him in as shadow chancellor. And still only 9 to 1 on Betfair as Labour's next leader. 

00:10: People on the BBC and keep talking about 2012 as a "high point for Labour". Is this true? Well, sort of. It was Ed Miliband's best year. However, that doesn't mean that Labour doesn't still have room to gain seats tonight - governments tend to lose seats in opposition and Labour lost seats pretty consistently in the areas up for election tonight throughout their 13-year-stay in government. So they still can and should make gains. And bear in mind, even Ed's good years were padded out with gains in safe Labour seats, which went from Labour strongholds with say, 40 Labour councillors and 20 Liberal Democrats to 58 Labour councilors and three Greens. In the places Labour needs to win at Westminster to get back into government, there is real room for growth. Which is why I wouldn't worry overmuch about losing some* seats in safe seats if when the marginals report Labour is making headway there. 

*Some is key. Going from a majority of 10,000 to 5,000 in Labour heartlands is fine if Corbyn is putting on 5,000 votes in seats Labour lost by that kind of margin. Going from a majority of 10,000 to -1,000 in Labour heartlands, less so. 

00:06: Labour look likely to lose Crawley

00:02: Labour have kept control of Newcastle Council, taking a seat from the Liberal Democrats. (I knew that would happen the second I typed the words "Liberal Democrat revival"). 

00:00: For those of you just joining us: welcome. Labour is projected to lose seats but remain the largest party in Wales, where the Conservatives seem to be gaining ground. In England, the Liberal Democrat revival appears to be a thing and not just a Twitter meme. In Scotland, the SNP are sounding buoyant while the Conservatives believe they may beat Labour into third. London won't count until tomorrow but everyone - Labour, Tory, Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol - is getting jittery over low turnout. 

23:55: That early worry I heard from Wales has vanished completely from the Tory side. Vale of Glamorgan is rumoured to be close - a close to six point swing to the Conservatives. So we have biggish swings away from Labour so far tonight. 

23:52: Labour are down 17 per cent in the six seats we've had so far (from 2012 when last contested). Still not very much data, but that would put the party in the mid to low 20s in terms of nationwide share. Personally I think it's unlikely to be that bad when all the results have rolled in. 

23:48: How about that Liberal Democrat fightback, huh? The Liberal Democrats have won a seat in Sunderland from Labour. 

23:47: The knives are already out for Kezia Dugdale in Scotland, where Labour may come third. 

23:42: Bad news for Labour from Wales. Clywd South is in play and the Tories may well win it. Cardiff North, which is Conservative-held at Westminster, looks likely to go the same way in the Assembly having been Labour-held since 2011. Newport West and Llanelli are worth looking out for too. 

23:39: Good news for Labour - they've held the first seat to declare out of Newcastle, and the Liberal Democrats, their main opposition, have privately conceded that Labour will remain large and in charge in Newcastle. 

23:35: Speaking of the Liberal Democrats, they are feeling cautiously optimistic about winning a seat in Edinburgh Western from the SNP, while they expect to recover a bit from 2015. (Things could hardly get worse, I suppose.)

23:32: The first Labour gain of the night, as a Liberal Democrat councilor in Stockport defects. 

23:30: Labour sources are gloomy about their chances of holding onto Exeter Council, where Ben Bradshaw is the party's only remaining MP in the South West. Looks like it will slip into no overall control. Party is also nervous about holding Derby. 

23:25: Tory mole in Wales tells me that things look bad for them - potentially worse than the losses shown in YouGov's poll. The election has become "a referendum on steel", apparently. 

23:20: Early results from Sunderland show Labour doing fairly badly (you know, for Sunderland) and Ukip doing very well. But one swallow doesn't make a summer and we need more data before we know anything. 

23:15: We should get our first result from Scotland in 45 minutes or so. Rutherglen, Labour-held since the Scottish Parliament's creation in 1999, and highly likely to go to the SNP. 

23:13: And what the results mean so far, according to ace numbercruncher Matt Singh:

23:07: Those numbers from Sunderland, where Labour have held in St Anne's ward. Labour down 15 points on 2012, when these seats were last fought, Tories down 3. It's Ukip who are making the headway (they didn't stand last time and expect them do post performances like this throughout the United Kingdom tonight and as results roll in over the weekend). 

23:04: Back to Wales - YouGov's poll "looks about right" according to my Plaid Cymru source. What does that mean? Labour could go it alone and do deals on a vote-by-vote basis - they govern alone now with just 30 seats. If the poll is even a little out - let's say either Labour or the Liberal Democrats get one more seat - they might do a deal if they can get a majority with the Welsh Liberal Democrats. 

23:01: Pallion Ward in Sunderland is the first to declare, and it's a Labour hold! More on percentages as I get them. 

22:58: Why isn't it an exit poll, I hear you ask? Well, an exit poll measures swing - not vote share, but the change from one election to the next. People are asked how they've voted as they leave polling stations. This is then projected to form a national picture. Tonight's two polls are just regular polls taken on the day of the election. 

22:57: The Sun's poll - again, not an exit poll, I'm not kidding around here - of Scotland has the SNP winning by a landslide. (I know, I'm as shocked as all of you) But more importantly, it shows the Conservatives beating Labour into second place. The Tories believe they may hold onto Ettrick as well. 

22:55: What news from Scotland? Labour looks to have been wiped out in Glasgow. Liberal Democrats think they might hold at least one of Orkney or Shetland, while the seats in Edinburgh are anyone's game. 

22:52: Hearing that turnout is low in Waltham Forest, Lewisham, Hackney and my birthplace of Tower Hamlets (the borough's best export unless you count Dizzie Rascal, Tinchy Stryder or Harry Redknapp, that's me). Bad news for Labour unless turnout is similarly low in the Tory-friendly outer boroughs. 

22:47: YouGov have done a poll (note: not an exit poll, it should not be taken as seriously as an exit poll and if you call it an exit poll I swear to god I will find you and kill you) of the Welsh Assembly. Scores on the door:

Labour 27

Plaid Cymru 12 

Conservatives 11

Ukip 8

Liberal Democrat 2

There are 60 seats in the Assembly, so you need 30 seats for a majority of one. 

22:40: In case you're wondering, how would closing a seven point deficit to say, six, compare to previous Labour oppositions, I've done some number-crunching. In 1984, Neil Kinnock's Labour turned a Tory lead of 15 per cent at the general election to a Conservative lead of just one per cent. In 1988, one of 12 per cent went down to one per cent. (He did, of course, go on to lose in both the 1987 and 1992 elections). In 1993, John Smith's Labour party turned a deficit of eight points at the general to a Labour lead of eight points in the local elections. William Hague turned a Labour lead of 13 points to one of just six in 1998, while Iain Duncan Smith got a Tory lead of just one point - from a Labour lead of nine. In 2006, new Tory leader David Cameron turned a 3 point Labour lead to a 13 point Tory one. Ed Miliband - remember him? - got from a Tory lead of seven points to a two point Labour one. 

22:35: John McDonnell is setting out what would be a good night as far as the party leadership is concerned - any improvement on the 2015 defeat, when the party trailed by close to seven points. Corbyn's critics say he needs to make around 400 gains.

I've written about what would be good at length before, but here's an extract:

"Instead of worrying overmuch about numbers, worry about places. Although winning seats and taking control of councils is not a guarantee of winning control of the parliamentary seat – look at Harlow, Nuneaton, and Ipswich, all of which have Labour representation at a local level but send a Conservative MP to Westminster – good performances, both in terms of increasing votes and seats, are a positive sign. So look at how Labour does in its own marginals and in places that are Conservative at a Westminster level, rather than worrying about an exact figure either way."

22:31: Oh god, the BBC's election night music is starting. Getting trauma flashbacks to the general election. 

22:22: A few of you have been in touch about our exit poll. Most of you have been wondering about that one vote for George Galloway but the rest are wondering what happens - under the rules of the London mayoral race (and indeed the contests in Salford, Bristol and Liverpool), 2 votes would not be enough for Sadiq. (He needs 2.5). However, all the other candidates are tied - which makes it through to the second round. What happens then is the second preferences are used as a tie-break. Of the tied candidates, Sian Berry has the most second preferences so she goes through to face Sadiq Khan in the final round. Final round is as follows:

Sadiq Khan: 3

Sian Berry: 2

3 votes is above the quota so he is duly elected. An early omen? 

22:19: Burnham latest. A spokesperson for Andy Burnham says:

"Approaches have been made to Andy Burnham to give consideration to this role. It is early days and no decision as been taken. Whatever the decision, he will continue to serve the leader of the party and stay in the shadow cabinet."

22:17: Anyway, exit poll of the office. We've got:

Sadiq Khan: 2

George Galloway: 1

Caroline Pidgeon: 1

Sian Berry: 1

22:15: Update on Andy Burnham. He has been asked to consider running. More as we get it. 

22:13: People are asking if there's an exit poll tonight. Afraid not (you can't really do an exit poll in elections without national swing). But there is a YouGov poll from Wales and I am conducting an exit poll of the four remaining members of staff in the NS building. 

22:11: It's true! Andy Burnham is considering running for Greater Manchester mayor. Right, that's it, I'm quitting the liveblog. Nothing I say tonight can top that. 

22:09: Rumours that professional Scouser Andy Burnham is considering a bid for Greater Manchester mayor according to Sky News. Not sure if this is a) a typo for Merseyside or b) a rumour or c) honestly I don't know. More as I find out. 

22:06: Conservatives are feeling good about Trafford, one of the few councils they run in the North West.

22:03: Polls have closed. Turnout looks to be low in London. What that means is anyone's guess to be honest. There isn't really a particular benefit to Labour if turnout is high although that is a well-worn myth. In the capital in particular, turnout isn't quite as simple a zero-sum game as all that. Labour are buoyant, but so are the Tories. In Scotland, well, the only questions are whether or not the SNP will win every single first past the post seat or just the overwhelming majority. Both Labour and Tory sources are downplaying their chances of prevailing in the battle for second place at Holyrood, so make of that what you will. And in Wales, Labour look certain to lose seats but remain in power in some kind of coalition deal. 

22:00: Good evening. I'm your host, Stephen Bush, and I'll be with you throughout the night as results come in from throughout the country. The TV screens are on, I've just eaten, and now it's time to get cracking. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.