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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Who really controls the Labour Party now?

Jeremy Corbyn's allies will struggle to achieve their ambition to remove general secretary Iain McNicol.

Jeremy Corbyn's advance at the general election confirmed his place as Labour leader. Past opponents recognise not only that Corbyn could not be defeated but that he should not be.

They set him the test of winning more seats – and he passed. From a position of strength, Corbyn was able to reward loyalists, rather than critics, in his shadow cabinet reshuffle. 

But what of his wider control over the party? Corbyn allies have restated their long-held ambition to remove Labour general secretary Iain McNicol, and to undermine Tom Watson by creating a new post of female deputy leader (Watson lost the honorific title of "party chair" in the reshuffle, which was awarded to Corbyn ally Ian Lavery).

The departure of McNicol, who was accused of seeking to keep Corbyn off the ballot during the 2016 leadership challenge, would pave the way for the removal of other senior staff at Labour HQ (which has long had an acrimonious relationship with the leader's office). 

These ambitions are likely to remain just that. But Labour figures emphasise that McNicol will remain general secretary as long he retains the support of the GMB union (of which he is a former political officer) and that no staff members can be removed without his approval.

On the party's ruling National Executive Committee, non-Corbynites retain a majority of two, which will grow to three when Unite loses a seat to Unison (now Labour's biggest affiliate). As before, this will continue to act as a barrier to potential rule changes.

The so-called "McDonnell amendment", which would reduce the threshold for Labour leadership nominations from 15 per cent of MPs to 5 per cent, is still due to be tabled at this year's party conference, but is not expected to pass. After the election result, however, Corbyn allies are confident that a left successor would be able to make the ballot under the existing rules. 

But Labour's gains (which surprised even those close to the leader) have reduced the urgency to identify an heir. The instability of Theresa May's government means that the party is on a permanent campaign footing (Corbyn himself expects another election this year). For now, Tory disunity will act as a force for Labour unity. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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