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Decision time for the Liberal Democrats

Clegg faces the dilemma of his life. To do what is in his party’s heart, he will need an iron will.

By James Macintyre

So far, the narrative over what will happen after the hung parliament result has been all about a deal of some sort between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. That may slowly start to change today as Lib Dem MPs gather to discuss how their party should play its hand.

Many of those MPs do not want to help David Cameron become prime minister, and cave in to the inevitable joint pressure of the Murdoch and right-wing media, the City and a Tory party champing at the bit for office.

By the end of the weekend, the possibilities of a “progressive alliance” may be discussed at last. It appears that Labour is, indeed, preparing to make Clegg an offer that would surely be agonisingly hard to refuse, including a referendum on real proportional representation, a sizeable handful of cabinet posts and even the conceivability of a timetable for Gordon Brown’s departure from No 10.

True, some Tories are saying they, too, are prepared to offer a referendum on voting reform as well as (fewer) cabinet seats. Yet it is far from certain that Cameron’s party — which, after all, expected outright victory — will allow such a “sell out” by the leadership. It is also unclear how such a move would work, given that the Tories themselves would presumably campaign in the country for the status quo. The Tories will surely struggle to satisfy the demands of most Lib Dem MPs.

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Equally, however, there are complications to a Labour offer, even though it would surely do so much more to bring together the sort of real progress Clegg’s party wants. Would Brown really agree to go? If he did, could Labour, in this age of media frenzy, put up another prime minister who has not won a general election?

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And although Labour and the Lib Dems could — despite the Tory and media outrage — legitimately claim to have more seats and votes combined than the Tories, and therefore form a government that a majority of voters would like, would relying on nationalist support work in practice?

The political scene this weekend is as complicated as a close game of chess heading for stalemate. Clegg will have to be very brave and bold indeed to defy the forces of conservatism and pursue that truly progressive alliance.

One way or the other, it will have to be worked out, but the result of this election is far from decided. For poor Nick Clegg, the exhausting battle has only just begun.