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.