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.
David Cameron speaks at a press conference following an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's EU concessions show that he wants to avoid an illegitimate victory

The Prime Minister is confident of winning but doesn't want the result to be open to challenge. 

Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.

When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” ("Yes"/"No") to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" ("Leave"/"Remain"), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that "Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias." 

Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of "purdah" during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour's abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers' money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum.

Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron's desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as "rigged" or "stitched-up". By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as "weak" for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.