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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.