Could Nick Clegg be the price for a Lib/Lab coalition? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.