What would the Lib Dems do in another hung parliament?

Will the Lib Dems eschew a Lib-Lab pact and allow Labour to struggle on as a minority? And why?

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Nick Clegg’s pitch to voters in the months leading to the general election is that the Lib Dems can act as a check, a “restraint”, on either of the two main parties if they come into power.

However, the specifics of what the Lib Dems would do in the case of another hung parliament have oddly become less clear the more the party lines itself up for another coalition.

Let’s consider a pact with Labour. With the party polling ahead – aside from the recent post-Tory conference poll bounce for the Conservatives – but not enough to form a majority, it has long been assumed that a Lib-Lab pact would be necessary. The Labour party vociferously looks to a majority and refuses to entertain the question of working with the Lib Dems in coalition. Yet there has been some consideration and preparation behind-the-scenes, as I reported during this year’s Labour party conference.

The Lib Dems have previously mildly warmed to the idea of working with the Labour party. A slew of stories over the past couple of years hinted at this: texts exchanged between Ed Miliband and Vince Cable; the Lib Dem party president Tim Farron lavishing the Labour leader with praise; Ed Balls suggesting he could work in coalition with Nick Clegg. These culminated in Clegg’s clear pitch to his party this time last year that he would like to be Deputy Prime Minister in whatever coalition configuration the voters choose in May 2015.

However, as Stephen Bush over at the Telegraph notes, the Lib Dems seem to be cooling off the idea of working alongside Labour. As George reports, Farron was highly critical of Miliband in a fringe event during party conference today, saying comparisons to Neil Kinnock are an insult to Kinnock.

Farron also dismissed the idea that the parties could work in a “cosy” progressive alliance simply because there appears to be much policy overlap between them. The Lib Dem health minister Norman Lamb went further, warning his party that doing a deal with Miliband could do it “enormous damage”, saying he didn’t see him as Prime Minister.

And it isn’t just about Miliband. Farron called Labour in general an “unpleasant, centralising, authoritarian party”. This contradicts what he told me when I interviewed him at his party’s annual conference two years ago; he admitted that a coalition with Labour would have meant the Lib Dems losing their “identity” because of the similarity between the two parties meaning that they would simply “merge” in the eyes of the public.

Now it looks like the Lib Dems are turning away from any opportunity to do any merging with Labour.

One suggestion flying around is a confidence-and-supply agreement, where Labour would concede some policies to the Lib Dems in exchange for support of key decisions, such as its Budget.

The Labour MP and energy spokesman Tom Greatrex, and Ann McKechin, Labour MP for Glasgow North, attended a fringe event at Lib Dem conference covering the possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition. They suggested confidence-and-supply as a way the parties could work together, as reported by the BBC:

She [McKechin] and Mr Greatrex agreed that - if Labour didn't win a majority - they would prefer to see a looser "confidence and supply" agreement with the Lib Dems, rather than a full coalition.

However, some Lib Dem party figures have been dismissing this option. Farron said in a Q+A at a Times event today that it is an “unnecessary” arrangement: “you get nothing from a confidence-and-supply agreement apart from a whole lot of grief”. He also suggested that the Lib Dems may let Labour struggle on as a minority government, saying that the lack of a financial crisis this time round will mean “the absolute burning necessity for a majority won’t be there”.

One Lib Dem MP I speak to, who admits he “leans more towards Labour” than the Tories ideologically, argues that it would be “impossible” to work with Labour because of how "tribal" its politicians are. “It makes it difficult to like and respect them, just because it’s all about Labour; ‘if you’re not with us, you’re our enemy’ – even though we have plenty of similar policies”.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.