If the Tories lose the next election, Clegg must leave with them

To allow the Liberal Democrats to swap sides without incurring any penalty would offend the essential order of our democracy.

I’ve nothing against dogs in general. In fact, I’ve always fancied owning a Staffy. But I’m not fond of poodles. So I nearly choked when Ed Balls hinted at a possible liaison with Nick Clegg, the biggest poodle of all. Our shadow chancellor thinks he could work with the Lib Dem leader in a coalition. It seems Nick and Ed have had a cosy chat recently, and Ed is acting like he’s found a new best friend. They’ve even been indulging in playful teasing on Twitter.

What really gives me the shivers is Ed’s bold assertion that he has “no reason to doubt [Clegg’s] integrity.” Really? What about the “small” matter of tuition fees where Nick betrayed millions of voters? Or his U-turn on reducing the number of digital gambling machines in bookies? One minute he’s backing a campaign to introduce curbs, the next he’s refusing to act, no doubt after a quiet word from the prime minister.

Besides, the shadow chancellor is getting ahead of himself by talking about a coalition at this stage in the game. My personal position is that it’s always preferable to have a decisive outcome in a general election. So it’s a mistake for Labour to get distracted by any talk of coalition. Let’s not give voters a sense of defeatism before the 2015 election posters have even been printed. Instead, let’s focus on fighting as hard as we can for a majority by listening to the concerns and needs of voters. Obviously Labour has a duty to try and form a government if the voters of the UK deliver an indecisive result by some quirk of electoral arithmetic. Yet if the Tories are thrown out of office, it is abundantly clear that Nick Clegg is the person most responsible for propping up a failed administration that did not carry a decisive mandate.

One of the strengths of our electoral system is this: you can heave a party out of office. To allow the Lib Dems to swap sides without incurring any penalty, in effect, feels like it offends the essential order of our democracy. Someone will have to take responsibility for the failures of the current coalition before the Lib Dems could form a coalition on a very different programme of renewed national purpose. 

The man with shared responsibility for those failures is Nick Clegg. Which is why he should go as Lib Dem leader as the price for coalition. There are plenty of people who could take his place. I'm probably in a minority of one in thinking that the Lib Dems should bring back Charlie Kennedy. But there are others who can hold down the job of Lib Dem leader. Vince Cable would be a good choice for example, or Danny Alexander even.

I know Nick’s supporters have tried to promote him as an attack dog rather than a poodle. But let’s face it, he shouldn’t be anyone’s first choice of a mutt they can count on to protect their rights. Clegg has become Mr Toxic, a leader tainted by association with David Cameron and the Tory leader’s “kick the poor, protect the rich” policies. His own MPs are clearly depressed by his lapdog-like behaviour. Sarah Teather has even decided to stand down because of the direction in which her leader is taking the party.

If we do end up without a majority at the next election, then Nick Clegg isn’t the right Lib Dem to go into government with. It’s a price this country shouldn’t have to pay again for democracy.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg visit Wandsworth Day Nursery on 19 March 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.
Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.