Nick Clegg’s declaration this weekend that he would be prepared to form a coalition with Labour after the next election was significant because it was at odds with much of what he’s previously said on the subject. In a speech in May 2011, for instance, Clegg rebuked those in party, most notably Vince Cable and Chris Huhne, who talk up the possibility of a future alliance with Labour. He said:
There are still those who dream of a so-called ‘progressive alliance’, forgetting that Labour had 13 years to make some moves in that direction and never quite seemed to get around to it until, in desperation, they tried to cling to power last year.
But asked by the People if he could do business with Ed Miliband, Clegg replied: “Yes. If the British people said that the only combination which could work would be those two parties, in the same way as after the last election the only combination which could work was Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it would be obvious that Liberal Democrats would need to do their duty.”
Invited to return the compliment, Miliband, however, has declined. It was in an interview with the New Statesman in August 2010 that the Labour leader first indicated that Clegg’s resignation would be a precondition of any deal with the Lib Dems, and nothing since has changed his mind. He told today’s Independent that he would find it “difficult to work with” Clegg, an “accomplice” to the Tories. Though his language is more ambiguous than on other occasions, the message remains that Clegg’s head is the price of any deal.
Since there is a good chance the next election will result in another hung parliament, Clegg and Miliband’s comments are more significant than they may appear. It is worth noting, for instance, that Miliband has never ruled out working with Vince Cable, who openly displayed his leadership ambitions this weekend. Ed Balls has gone further, declaring that he “could serve in a Cabinet with Chris Huhne or Vince Cable tomorrow”. Should Cable lead the Lib Dems into the next election (with Clegg perhaps returning to Brussels to serve as the UK’s EU commissioner), it would significantly increase Ed Miliband’s chances of becoming prime minister.