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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.