The Lib Dem dilemma

Chris Huhne, a former Labour man, is reluctant to rule out a Tory-Liberal coalition. But he must k

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Under normal circumstances, the Liberal Democrats would be delighted with the recent attention they have had. But these are not normal circumstances. With opinion polls pointing to a possible hung parliament, the party's leadership has seldom been less willing to talk openly. The reason for the silence is tactical - the party wants to maximise its influence and bargaining position between now and any post-election period when it could hold the balance of power. If it were seen to be leaning towards Labour, a more natural partner than the Conservatives, that influence would evaporate.

Hence, the policy of "equidistance" between the two main parties, which hides the reality that David Cameron's Tories - from Europe to redistribution - are at odds with the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg's mantra that it is the voters who are the "kingmakers", not the Lib Dems, and his refusal to rule out a Tory alliance, have led some in Westminster to speculate about just that. There is even talk about how Clegg would feature in such an alliance as, say, home secretary.

For Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem shadow home secretary who was very narrowly beaten to the party's leadership by Clegg in 2007, it is frustrating to be asked such hypothetical questions. Particularly as he is a former Labour man who many assume would much rather support his old party than the Tories, and because the reality, as insiders from all three parties acknowledge, is that there will never be a Tory-Liberal coalition.

Sitting in his cramped Commons office, a little weary, perhaps, after the party's spring conference, Huhne rolls his eyes at my questions. Can he really envisage sitting in a Tory cabinet? Would he have chosen to praise Margaret Thatcher, as Clegg did in a recent interview, leading some on the left of the party to warn against "flirting" with David Cameron? To these questions, he offers equal criticism of the two bigger parties, says nothing off-message and insists there is "not a Rizla paper" between him and Clegg. He does say that "flirting is the name of the game"- but with voters, rather than the other parties.

Huhne rejects the perceived difference between his party's Jenkinsite social-democratic left and its Owenite pro-market right. "I obviously came from the Labour Party; I joined the SDP [Social Democratic Party], so, on the face of it, I'm a social democrat," he says. "There was always a radical social-liberal streak [in the Liberal Party], which arrived at very, very similar conclusions to the moderate social-democratic philosophy." And he cites L T Hobhouse's Liberalism, a book that outlines the approach taken by the 1906 Liberal government.

Huhne concedes that the values he speaks of contrast with those of the modern, post-Thatcher Tory party. But he will not be drawn into saying that he would rather work with Labour, even though some on his front bench admit this privately and the former party leader Charles Kennedy used to indicate it publicly. "We are simply not talking about what happens after an election when we do not know," Huhne tells me. "We will try and act in a way which is responsible and which ensures that we deal with the economic recovery.

“Budget deficits on the scale of what we have at the moment are not put right overnight . . . This is not a one-Budget trick; it's a real long march. And I think that whatever happens in the election, if the electorate votes in a way that [suggests] they do not want one party to have absolute power over the country's destiny, then all the parties have to reflect on that and try to come to conclusions which are in the best ­interests of the country."

Palace coup

Only three times during our hour-long interview does Huhne allow himself to become truly animated. First, he loses patience over the questioning: "If I was merely a substitute member of the Labour Party, which is what your questions seem to imply, then why on earth would I have been involved in Liberal Democrat politics for 29 years?"

Second, Huhne is scathing about claims that the peculiarities of his party's constitution - the so-called triple-lock rule, which gives party members, MPs and the executive final agreement "in the event of any substantial proposal which could affect the party's independence of political action" - would slow down the formation of a post-election coalition and lead to "jitters" on the financial markets. Huhne dismisses such talk as "a typical Tory scare tactic aimed at stirring up panic".

“We have seen it before with William Hague's 'days to save the pound' nonsense. There are no reasons for jitters in the City."

He points out that Germany's public finances are strong and the country has been governed by nothing other than coalitions since 1945, while the UK - which has been governed only by single parties since then - is debt-stricken, its situation nearer to that of Greece, also governed by one party.

His third animated moment comes when asked about the Westminster rumour that the Lib Dems would make replacing Gordon Brown as leader a condition of an alliance with Labour. He emphatically denies that there have been any discussions of this sort. "As far as I understand the constitution of the Labour Party, it chooses its own leader and doesn't yet invite Liberal Democrats to take part in that," he says wryly. "We are not talking about conditions . . . The real problems Gordon Brown faces are from his own party. We are not the ones who have mounted three coups in an attempt to get rid of him."

A hung parliament would represent a considerable victory for a prime minister who has been largely written off since the 2007 election-that-wasn't, but Brown's leadership remains an issue. Some have speculated that, in the event of Labour ending up as the largest party in a hung parliament, the Queen might call for a Labour replacement - say, David Miliband - with whom the Lib Dems could work. There are precedents for parties changing prime ministers when demanded by other parties - Herbert As­quith to Lloyd George in 1916, Neville Chamberlain to Winston Churchill in 1940 - but it is unlikely that the sovereign would make such a political move today.

“It'll be a deal with Cameron's Conservatives or Brown's Labour that will be on offer, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and not any of the other potential packages that assorted people are dreaming up," says Professor Philip Cowley, a parliamentary expert from Nottingham University.

As for the Liberal Democrats, one senior Lib Dem MP has told me separately that there may be merit in the party joining forces with what he called a "toxic" prime minister, because there could then follow a "palace coup" within a coalition to the benefit of the Lib Dems.

Others are saying that Brown may choose to leave No 10 voluntarily if he can keep Labour in office, having saved the economy and his party, and secured his legacy.

But if he loses, Brown may not quit the ­leadership quickly, as he hinted on Radio 4's Woman's Hour on 15 March. Indeed, one senior Brown ally first told me in January that the Prime Minister had made it clear he would seek to take advantage of Labour's history of refusing to "kill" its leaders after election defeats. After all, Clement Attlee stayed another four years after he lost the 1951 election; Harold Wilson stayed on after Labour's 1970 defeat and became prime minister again in 1974; and even Jim Callaghan stayed on for a year after losing in 1979.

“These people who think Gordon would go after losing have no understanding of the history of the Labour Party," my source said. "We do not bring down our leaders in the way the Tories do." Asked if this would be possible in a 24-hour media age where pressure for him to go would be enormous, the source replied: "You mark my words."

In less than two months, we could see anyone from Gordon Brown to David Cameron to David Miliband walking in to No 10. We could see the Tory party restored as a natural party of government - or crushed for a generation or more after a fourth successive defeat. We could even see Liberal ministers attending cabinet for the first time since the Second World War.

“There's obviously a whole range of potential possibilities," says Huhne as I leave his unglamorous office. He adds: "We may be the largest party." Unlikely, but not more so than a Liberal-Tory alliance.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.