Is Clegg's head no longer the price of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition?

Harriet Harman suggests that Ed Miliband would not force Nick Clegg to stand down before forming a coalition with the Lib Dems in 2015.

With another hung parliament looking ever more likely in 2015 (Labour's lead stands at just one in today's YouGov poll), the question of whether Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg could ever work together is being asked again. At one point, it looked doubtful that Clegg would lead his party into the next election, but the Eastleigh by-election, the economic recovery and the wane of Vince Cable's star have combined to create an unlikely political rebirth. 

In interviews at the Lib Dem conference, Clegg, unsurprisingly, left the door open to a partnership with Miliband: "If the British people say that the most legitimate outcome of the next general election would be a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, of course I would be prepared to play my part in that."

But what of Miliband? Back in 2010, when hatred towards the Lib Dems ran raw, he suggested that, just as Clegg insisted on Gordon Brown's departure, so the Deputy PM's head would be the price of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. He told the New Statesman: "Given what he is supporting, I think it is pretty hard to go into coalition with him."

Asked again, "so you wouldn't work with Nick Clegg?", he replied: "That's right. No."

But when David Dimbleby reminded Harriet Harman of this on last night's Question Time, she replied: 

I'm sure that must be a misquote? I mean, he's worked with him on, for example, tackling the problems of all the phone-hacking and the Tories trying to rig the boundaries, so actually when we've put forward a proposal that the Lib Dems are prepared to support then they do work with us. But we want an overall majority. 

A misquote, as my former NS colleague Mehdi Hasan stated on Twitter, it was not. But it is striking how Miliband's rhetoric towards Clegg has softened since 2010. Last summer, for instance, he told the Independent, "I would find it difficult to work with him", which is some distance from the unambiguous "no" he offered two years before. 

Much will, of course, depend on how great the Lib Dem losses are and how close Labour is to a majority. But judging by Harman's words, it seems the party has decided that it no longer afford to go into the election ruling out any deal with Clegg. 

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Recess confidential: Labour's liquid party

Sniffing out the best stories from Westminster, including Showsec, soames, and Smith-side splits.

If you are celebrating in a brewery, don’t ask Labour to provide the drinks. Because of the party’s continuing failure to secure a security contractor for its Liverpool conference, it is still uncertain whether the gathering will take place at all. Since boycotting G4S, the usual supplier, over its links with Israeli prisons, Labour has struggled to find an alternative. Of the five firms approached, only one – Showsec – offered its services. But the company’s non-union-recognition policy is inhibiting an agreement. The GMB, the firm’s antagonist, has threatened to picket the conference if Showsec is awarded the contract. In lieu of a breakthrough, sources suggest two alternatives: the police (at a cost of £59.65 per constable per hour), or the suspension of the G4S boycott. “We’ll soon find out which the Corbynites dislike the least,” an MP jested. Another feared that the Tories’ attack lines will write themselves: “How can Labour be trusted with national security if it can’t organise its own?”

Farewell, then, to Respect. The left-wing party founded in 2004 and joined by George Galloway after his expulsion from Labour has officially deregistered itself.

“We support Corbyn’s Labour Party,” the former MP explained, urging his 522,000 Facebook followers to sign up. “The Labour Party does not belong to one man,” replied Jess Phillips MP, who also pointed out in the same tweet that Respect had “massively failed”. Galloway, who won 1.4 per cent of the vote in this year’s London mayoral election, insists that he is not seeking to return to Labour. But he would surely be welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, whom he once described as his “closest friend”. “We have spoken almost daily for 30 years,” Galloway boasted.

After Young Labour’s national committee voted to endorse Corbyn, its members were aggrieved to learn that they would not be permitted to promote his candidacy unless Owen Smith was given equal treatment. The leader’s supporters curse more “dirty tricks” from the Smith-sympathetic party machine.

Word reaches your mole of a Smith-side split between the ex-shadow cabinet ministers Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell. The former is said to be encouraging the challenger’s left-wing platform, while the latter believes that he should make a more centrist pitch. If, as expected, Smith is beaten by Corbyn, it’s not only the divisions between the leader and his opponents that will be worth watching.

Nicholas Soames, the Tory grandee, has been slimming down – so much so, that he was congratulated by Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, on his weight loss. “Soon I’ll be able to give you my old suits!” Soames told the similarly rotund Watson. 

Kevin Maguire is away

I'm a mole, innit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser