The latest polling from Nick Clegg’s constituency of Sheffield Hallam confirms what we’ve said repeatedly at the Staggers and at our sister site May2015: Nick Clegg is under threat.
That could have outsized implications for the composition of the next government. One Coalition-sympathetic Liberal insider recently described his role to me like this: “Say it’s like a marriage. You might have the racist uncle on one side arguing with the hippie sister from another. But as long as that central couple at the big table are smiling and laughing, it’s fine.” Without Clegg, as my colleague George Eaton blogged earlier, recreating that marriage becomes difficult, even impossible.
But negotiating in a hung parliament may become fraught in the extreme for the Liberal Democrats, regardless of who with. Unlike the big two, who are vehemently denying making any preparation for a hung parliament – although both are quietly assembling both a team and a series of policy offers for negotiations – Nick Clegg has already publically named a team of negotiators . (Last time, the team consisted of David Laws, Danny Alexander, Andrew Stunnell and Chris Huhne, and was appointed in secret some time before the election.) That team in full: David Laws, Danny Alexander, Steve Webb, Sal Brinton, and Lynne Featherstone.
David Laws and Steve Webb are both in seats cushioned by large majorities and facing Conservative opponents; neither are in any serious danger of losing their seats. Baroness Brinton – who my colleague Anoosh profiled earlier this year – as a peer is insulated from public anger. But Danny Alexander, one of Clegg’s closest allies, is near-certain to be defeated in his Inverness seat. Labour are both publically and privately bullish about their chances in Featherstone’s seat of Hornsey and Wood Green.
It’s perfectly plausible that one of Clegg or Featherstone could survive. But it would be a surprise if both of them were (and in the case of Featherstone would be the subject of a mini-inquest from Labour). There’s no reason why the negotiators have to be in parliament; but their ability to secure support from their own MPs – vital if any formal coalition is to be agreed – or respect from the other parties will be severely reduced. Forget being unable to negotiate a second coalition with the Conservatives – assembling a team capable to negotiating and selling any deal with anyone to the rest of the party may be a bridge too far for whatever remains of the Liberal Democrats.