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See-sawing Clegg must decide

Liberal Democrat MPs and strategists are pushing for Clegg to rule out an alliance with the Tories

Every Thursday morning at 8.30, Nick Clegg's inner circle gathers at the Liberal Democrats' Cowley Street headquarters in London to discuss strategy. Present at the meetings are Jonny Oates, the head of media who worked for the left-wing leadership challenger Simon Hughes; Lena Pietsch, Clegg's senior press officer; Ben Stoneham, his operations director; the young MP Danny Alexander, who is writing the party's manifesto; the election manager Alison Suttie; and Clegg's former chief of staff, Polly Mackenzie.

Also present are Clegg's key strategist, John Sharkey, the Lib Dems' equivalent to the Tories' Steve Hilton, and Chris Fox, formerly of Tate & Lyle, who has replaced Chris Rennard as chief strategist. Sharkey chairs the election planning committee. (A former advertising man, he was part of the team that came up with the famous 1979 Saatchi poster "Labour isn't working".)

In this arena and in the party more widely, a debate over strategy becomes more acute by the day as the prospect of a possible hung parliament looms.

On the fence

Clegg's official policy is that of "equidistance": he will back whichever party has the biggest "mandate" to govern after the election. This is consistent with the balancing act performed by Clegg's predecessors, who sought to maximise their own votes.

“You're probably going to chuckle," Clegg once told me, "but I want to be prime minister." This is neither ignoble nor dishonest but there is an unspoken strategic point here. It is in the Lib Dems' interests to maximise influence by maintaining ambiguity around their position. If they were to rule out forming some sort of alliance with the Tories, it might push some undecided voters towards David Cameron, rather than Clegg. The current electoral system, so weighted against the Lib Dems, doesn't help. So, instead, party strategists hope that a minority government will be followed by a second general election.

Is it dishonest for the Lib Dems to pretend that they are not closer to Labour, no matter how disappointed they are with the government of Gordon Brown and with Tony Blair, who once led the Liberals into a merry dance over electoral reform and putative coalitions? Such pretence could put off disillusioned former Labour voters, if they feel that the Lib Dems would prop up the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament. Natural Lib Dem supporters may be repelled, too: last year, a ComRes poll showed that twice as many party activists (31 per cent) preferred coalition with Labour than with the Tories. Liberal and Labour movements obviously share fundamental values, including the pursuit of social justice through educational opportunity as well as poverty reduction. The Conservative Party is at odds with the Lib Dems on crucial areas, such as Europe, immigration, redistribution and the reform of the political system.

At a Foreign Policy Centre fringe event during the 2009 Lib Dem conference, the former leader Charles Kennedy said: "I just don't see how we could make common ground with a Cameron-Hague administration on the European issue. I mean, pigs would fly."

This remains the private position of many senior Lib Dems. And yet, the implication under Kennedy's leadership - that they would never ally with the Tories - appears to have shifted under Clegg. In public, at least. In private, a senior Lib Dem frontbencher tells me that Labour may in fact have done "enough" to secure Lib Dem support in the event of a hung parliament with its promise of a proposed post-election referendum on the alternative vote.

However, the Lib Dem leadership would do well to remember what Kennedy said on the day he resigned, four years ago: "The leadership personalities change from time to time in politics, but principles should not. Civil liberties, justice . . . Europe . . . and a far fairer social deal for the have-nots in our society . . . My sincere parting advice . . . is to keep that debate within the parameter of these principles - and not to get unduly distracted by the machinations in other parties or what the vagaries of the British voting system may offer up."

Break with convention

Clegg concedes to having had a "rocky" start when he became leader of Britain's third party in December 2007 (only two years after entering the Commons). At first, he struggled to carve out a distinct identity in the way that Charles Kennedy had through his opposition to the Iraq invasion and his call for a penny on income tax. And some in the party believe that Chris Huhne, Clegg's narrowly defeated leadership rival from the Jenkinsite, social liberal wing of the party, might have pursued a clearer leftist fiscal agenda, had he become leader.

Yet Clegg has grown into the job. On foreign affairs, he has been robust and may yet call for British troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. On the Iraq war, he pressed for Gordon Brown to give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry before the election. Brown will give evidence, but not until after the election.

During the expenses crisis, Clegg delivered the fatal blow to Speaker Michael Martin by becoming the first party leader to call for him to stand down.

Meanwhile, his policy of equidistance is, at a tactical level, understandable. But now some of his MPs and strategists are asking whether Clegg should be bolder still and, in a break with convention, indicate he will not align with a party whose values are diametrically opposed to his own.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war