The official line of why we went into coalition with the Tories is of course that is was the democratic will of the people. Our combined share of the vote of 59 per cent remains the only occasion since the Second World War that the UK government has been formed with a majority share of the popular vote.
But there is another side to the story as well, often debated within the Lib Dems, which explains the real reasoning why David Cameron is debating putting a “no coalitions clause” into the next Conservative manifesto.
And it’s all about money.
The argument is this. Supposing we had declined the Tories “big, open and comprehensive” offer to form a government. Three options remained. The first – a coalition of the progressive left – we can dismiss on the grounds that literally the numbers didn’t add up, even if agreement could have been made between ourselves, Labour, the Greens, the SNP and others.
The other two options were a short term confidence and supply arrangement with the Tories, or to allow the Tories to form a minority government. Neither would have involved any sort of fixed term Parliament Act, and so the date of the next General Election would have been at the discretion of David Cameron. The received wisdom is that it would have followed fairly swiftly, probably in the Autumn of 2010 – when only the Tory Party had the funds to run a second general election campaign. The odds are this would have seen a repeat of 1974 – but this time with a big Tory majority. In effect, they should have been able to buy the election.
Thus, the logic runs within the Lib Dems, going into Government with the Tories was not just the best option – it was the only option to prevent a second election and then 5 years of majority Tory Government, with all those policies currently filling Cameron’s little black book ending up on the Statute Book.
You can bet your bottom dollar the same calculation has been made in Downing Street. While it may well be true that David Cameron does prefer governing with the Lib Dems than with many on the right of his own party – and let’s not forget ruling out any coalition also presumably means no electoral pact with UKIP either – there’s still a ton of stuff he wants to do, that the Lib Dems won’t let him.
And the first, I’ll wager, is changes to the constituency boundaries to remove the current bias to Labour.
So I suspect Downing Street Tories, in retrospect, see the big open and comprehensive offer – made after 2 hours sleep following a 4 week long General Election campaign – as a mistake. Labour, should they win most seats but no majority will probably not be in a position to run a second campaign quickly after the first – and hence will leave the coalition door ajar. But the Tories don’t need to.
Hence, I suspect Cameron sees his winning line in May 2015 as not 326 seats, but just as beating Labour. And even he’s a little short first time round, he knows he’s the only leader who can afford to fight Round 2.