New Times,
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  1. Politics
7 May 2010

The bidding war has just begun

Tories’ first bid may not seal the deal.

By James Macintyre

So, after Gordon Brown confirms he is not standing down, David Cameron makes his way to the St Stephen’s Club in central London to issue his first, tentative offer in a bidding war that is sure to run and run. He talked of a working group on constitutional reform and emphasised the (few) policy areas the Tories and Lib Dems have in common, including, for example, abolition of identity cards.

But he stopped short of a full offer on electoral reform, and this may be because Cameron, as I hinted in my piece for this week’s magazine, is not in a position of strength with his own party, which is opposed to any change to the system. As a result, it is almost certain that his first offer is not enough.

I am not the first to say that Gordon Brown and senior Labour figures will right now be doing everything they can to throw the kitchen sink at an inscreasingly stressed-looking Nick Clegg. So far the offers, which may include a second question on real proportional representation in the electoral reform referendum, and even cabinet places, have been in private.

At some point they will break out into the public, but in the meantime this remains, in the journalistic cliché, and in a way that so many thought was unthinkable until very recently, too close to call.

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This, incidentally, is what a senior Whitehall source has sent me:

Clegg is in the perfect position — the bride waiting to be courted. He just has to sit back, hold his nerve and wait. A referendum within 12 months on PR has to be his bottom line. The risk for him is that Labour or the Tories go for a new election within a year rather than hold the referendum.

That risk would be greater with the Tories than with Labour, because they would be the stronger and could go for an outright majority. This is Clegg’s prisoner’s dilemma, but he is likely to be able to extract more from Labour in the long term, as they are weaker and would know that a new election would not likely bring them an increase in seats or an outright majority.

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