Could Nick Clegg be the price for a Lib/Lab coalition? Photo: Getty
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Could Nick Clegg be the price for a Lib Dem coalition with Labour?

Would the Lib Dems manage to keep Nick Clegg as leader during coalition negotiations with Labour?

There’s an adage in business that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money. The political equivalent is red lines – and a red line isn’t a red line, until it costs you government.

When it comes to the possibility of coalition negotiations after the election, the Lib Dems have several red lines but these are being kept firmly under the proverbial hat (ostensibly to strengthen our hand in discussions, although it does also suggest that some of those red lines may have a certain pinkish hue about them). There seems to be just one publicly stated red line, other than the party's mental health care promises unveiled at their conference last year, a no-go area that’s not for discussion or open for debate – the leadership of the party. Or as David Laws put it last Friday on Radio 4’s PM programme:

We’re willing to negotiate if we end up in hung parliament scenarios on policy substance but it’s not for somebody else to dictate to us who our leader is.

Which is admirable. But a bit of a problem. Because it’s not a principle the party was willing to extend to its political opponents. Here’s Laws again, describing events on 10 May 2010 in the midst of the last coalition negotiations in his book, 22 Days in May:

The messages seemed finally to be getting through, because at our Cowley Street HQ, a morning phone call between Peter Mandelson and Danny Alexander finally confirmed agreement by Labour to the Lib Dem requirement for Gordon Brown to announce his resignation if serious Lib-Lab discussions were to start.

Now – of course it’s admirable that the party would be willing to forgo government rather than allow decisions about its leadership to be dictated by a political opponent. But Labour hasn’t forgotten that 2010 ultimatum (and probably feel it rather let itself down by acquiescing back then anyway) – and that suddenly explains quite a lot of their recent actions.

For example, why they devoted a party political broadcast during last year's European elections attempting to belittle a domestic political opponent. Why they are ploughing huge resources into winning a seat that doesn’t figure in their top 106 targets when they supposedly pursuing a "core votes" (or 35 per cent) strategy. And why, when asked, Ed Miliband said he’d be willing to come and campaign personally against Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam.

Should Labour end up as the largest party but needing Lib Dem votes to form a majority government, it will create an interesting dilemma for both parties. Labour refusing to form a government in which Nick Clegg features – and the Westminster Lib Dems refusing to join a Labour coalition if a requirement is changing their leader.

And imagine how the huge swathe of Lib Dem activists who favour a deal with Labour over the Tories will feel if they know the reason this won’t get delivered is the presence of Nick. Especially if this results in doing a deal once again with the Tories.

Those 2010 late night phone calls to Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson to get Brown to resign make the three days of coalition negotiations sound like an episode of House of Cards. Back then it seems Labour were willing to sacrifice their leader in order to find a way of clinging on to office. In 2015, the calls are more likely to be going the other way, senior Labour figures making late night calls to the great and the good in the party to persuade Nick to stand down "for the good of the country". I imagine Gordon Brown has got his speech mapped out already.

And then we’ll see just how thick that red line is likely to be.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.