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11 March 2010

Clegg steps towards clarity over hung parliament

Lib Dem leader outlines conditions for support in Independent interview.

By James Macintyre

Andrew Grice has a fascinating interview with Nick Clegg this morning, in which the Liberal Democrat leader goes further than he ever has to clarify his party’s position over what it would do in the apparently increasingly likely event of a hung parliament.

Clegg outlines “four steps to fairness” he would seek from a party with “the strongest mandate” to secure support. From Andy’s report:

They are a shake-up of the tax system to lift four million people out of tax by raising tax thresholds to £10,000, with higher taxes for the rich; a boost to education spending targeted at children from poor families through a “pupil premium”; a switch to a greener economy less dependent on financial services; and political reform including a new voting system for Westminster elections.

This is highly significant. On the face of it, Clegg remains wedded to his policy of “equidistance” between Labour and the Conservatives. But in reality, it can be interpreted as an extremely subtle shift towards the prospect of a coalition.

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Clegg’s circle has up to now refused even to countenance the possibility of a coalition; strategists say with a straight face that the party will refuse to enter one. Some have said this on the record. As Andy reports:

[On] Sunday night, Baroness (Shirley) Williams of Crosby, the party’s former leader in the Lords, was telling BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “We will support whichever party has the largest number of seats . . . We will not enter into a coalition with them. We will ask them to show us their legislative intentions, effectively the Queen’s Speech. We will tell them what we can support. We will tell them what we can’t support . . . That is the only proper way to behave.”

And yet, although the headline — which talks of a “deal” — is less carefully worded than Andy’s report — which talks of “support” — this is a very different message from that.

Clegg launches what Andy describes as a “scathing attack” on the Tories, but still will not admit that his party is closer to Labour than the Conservatives. A while ago, the NS leader argued that Clegg should rule out an alliance with a Tory party diametrically opposed to Lib Dem values. I have since realised that strategically, if not on principle, I was misguided, in that to do so would lessen his influence.

Nonetheless, Labour strategists will be hoping that today’s interview is an indication that the party has “done enough” to secure Lib Dem support — and a possible coalition — especially if it is the largest single party in a hung parliament, as some senior Lib Dems privately admit.