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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.