Will Nick Clegg prefer the Conservatives?
The Times carries an article this morning outlining bits and pieces of what Clegg has apparently said in an interview, to the effect that he will not support Gordon Brown in the event of a hung parliament.
‘Clegg said the election was now effectively a two-horse race between the Tories and the Lib Dems. “Labour is increasingly irrelevant. The question now [about what would happen] is one in which the Labour party plays no role,” he said.
‘Senior Lib Dem sources have revealed that if the party secures a high share of the vote in the election, it will demand equal status in any coalition. Regardless of the number of seats it wins, it will open negotiations with a demand for half the seats in cabinet. “If more and more people support the Liberal Democrats, clearly that gives us a really powerful legitimacy to push for the things we want,” Clegg said.’
If Clegg seriously believes that Labour is ‘increasingly irrelevant’, he is in need of a reality check. I have little sympathy for Labour as it stands – it has brought misfortune upon itself. But if Clegg was to prop up a Cameron government? Labour almost automatically becomes the only legitimate opposition again.
As for demanding half of all cabinet seats in a hung parliament coalition, according to ‘senior Lib Dem sources’, well that seems exactly the sort of grandstanding that we’ve witnessed at every by-election since Blair stepped down. High Lib Dem vote? Clearly the people recognize that Nick Clegg is the messiah…and he denies it! There’s your proof! Alleluia.
How does all this stack up in terms of electoral positioning? The big swing in the polls seems to have come from disaffected Labour votes, and to hold on to them, one has to continually denigrate Labour in just the terms that Nick Clegg has done – treating them as irrelevant. However, in attempting to straddle both wavering Tories and a Labour vote, Clegg seems to stretch himself too thin.
“I tie my hands in the following sense: that the party that has more votes and seats, but doesn’t get an absolute majority — I support them,” Clegg said.
Saying pretty much outright that he’ll back a Tory government if it has the largest number of votes and seats will surely send all those potential votes straight back to Labour – and as it is being played up by the Times as a preference for Cameron, this seems precisely the message that will get across. It also places into acute contradiction the many Left policies that Lib-Dems tout on the doorstep with their view of the bankruptcy of FPTP.
A fair chunk of Clegg’s interview was also dedicated towards pushing David Cameron towards electoral reform, and Cameron has in turn flirted with the idea, saying that he’ll demand laws which cause a general election within six months of a change of Prime Minister, or that he may support a referendum on AV.
Yet this falls far short of what Clegg wants – and far short, also, of what most of the groups campaigning for reform have been demanding. Propping up a Tory government in return for such measly scraps would once and for all torpedo the claim of the Lib-Dems to be a party of genuine reform, and would also probably stabilise Labour.
What Clegg and the rest don’t seem to have banked on is that if Labour goes into opposition, it will be once more free to oppose the government from the Left. The opposition will be opportunistic in the extreme, and in any mass campaign, the Labour heirarchy will play the same role as it did in the 1980s and 1990s – delaying, braking, restraining.
It would be opposition nonetheless, and would eat away at any Lib-Dem support, which would naturally suffer from their being in government – especially as a prop to the Conservatives. In short, this weekend’s interviews with Cameron and Clegg seem to have yielded nothing more than hot air and frenzied media speculation. Again.
At least there’s no more talk by Martin Kettle and co about a National Government.