Lib Dems hardball what if

It’s a hung Parliament

The election is over.  Either the Conservatives or Labour have secured around 310 seats.  Not enough for a Commons majority.  The Liberal Democrats have had a bad election.  Their national vote was halved from 2010 and they have emerged with 30 seats.  But entering a second coalition would still secure a further tenure of office.

So, dust off the files from May 2010 on coalition forming, and re-run the exercise?  Probably not.  We may have to look at the rather dustier files of earlier historical precedents instead.

The chances are Coalition Mark II might not resemble Coalition Mark I – at least certainly not in its formation.  If this scenario is in play, the Liberal Democrats can only conclude that they ended up paying a heavy price for participating in Coalition Mark I.  Many of their ministers are no longer even in Parliament. An army of ex-councillors has now been joined by at least a couple of dozen of ex-MPs.  Nick Clegg’s standing with the voters is greatly diminished from five years before.  The party’s post-election inquest shows that most of the loss of support was put down to perceived betrayal:  It’s tuition fees, stupid.

Then the phone rings.  It’s either Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband, and he wants to meet up.  How can it possibly be like May 2010 all over again?

Mr Cameron’s calling

If it’s David Cameron, the dynamic is not too hard to imagine.  For Clegg, it’s a case of, ‘well, my last deal with you hasn’t done me much good; why should I do another one?’ There are reasons to deal of course, such as the continuation in office and the politician’s invariable belief that things may work out in the end.  But the reasons not to are now stacked high – potential accusations of further sell-outs, the prospect of final electoral obliteration in 2020, to name a couple.  So, what to do?  The chances are that the price of a deal will soar, compared to last time, with many more red lines.  Certainly, the Liberal Democrats will avoid another ‘tuition fees’ scenario and an in-out EU referendum could be the priciest item of all.

The dynamic reveals Cameron negotiating from a position of weakness – he has failed for a second time to secure an overall Conservative majority, and there is a swelling tide of discontent on the backbenches who are unwilling to compromise on the EU referendum.  And yet, the price tag Clegg has attached to Coalition Mark II has shot up, because his troops will not support a deal that feels like a re-run of 2010, and therefore a slow-release suicide note for its signatories.

Can the deal be done at all?  Will the dynamic be too awkward, with the two lead players anxiously watching their backs all the time?  It’s possible that a deal just can’t be done.  Cameron may feel that, for the sake of his leadership, he needs to be bold and so ploughs on as a minority. This game plan challenges the enfeebled Liberal Democrats and the defeated Labour parties to bring him down, and thus forcing a second poll where the prospects of securing an overall majority might be much better: it’s the ‘Britain needs a stable government’ election, reminiscent of Stanley Baldwin’s campaign of 1924, following a short period of minority government.

Mr Miliband’s calling

If it’s Mr Miliband on the other end of the phone, will the dynamics be different?  Miliband starts on a roll of course.  He has (almost) achieved something remarkable – bringing his party back from a crushing defeat to near-victory, and ousting Cameron from Downing Street.  The detractors in the media, and in his own party, have been silenced.  The eagerness to secure, once again, that tantalisingly close lock-hold on power is palpable.  Here’s someone more eager to deal, perhaps, than the incumbent caller.

Then there are the many areas of policy agreement beckoning a deal: no need for that in-out referendum, more intervention in uncompetitive markets, the shared preference for some wealth taxes, stepping back from some of the more radical public sector reforms, and repealing a handful of punitive welfare reforms.

There will be an eagerness to enter office with the security of a majority, and the outlines of the policy deal are already on the table.  The discreet talks of the last year or so have laid the foundations; now all that’s required is the ink on the page.

But it still might not be that easy:  The same ‘costs of coalition’ will still apply.  The challenges and the compromises of government will still be there, and what might the electoral cost to the Liberal Democrats be of first trimming to Conservative demands and then trimming to Labour? The ‘no principle’ charge gains even more traction, and the prospect of even further electoral erosion beckons.

And then there’s the prospect of allowing the centre-right in British politics to re-group.  In opposition, the Conservatives will find it far easier to see off UKIP.  As the Lab-Lib coalition struggles with the persistent deficit, the disappointments of office set in and the voters begin to punish the centre-left.  Virtually all anti-government sentiment falls in behind the Conservatives.

So still, the price of the deal has to be higher than in 2010.  The lure is the continuation in office and influence in government.  But it cannot have the same lustre as it seemed to have in 2010.  So the calculation of whether it’s worth it still has to be figured.  The deal with Mr Miliband might be easier, but the price is still high.  There will be many behind him urging the minority government option: a year of decisive action on energy bills, banks, and rail fares, a wealth tax, and bedroom tax repeal, and then a second election to secure that majority.  We could see a re-run of Harold Wilson’s manoeuvre after February 1974, where he didn’t even consider a coalition and governed with a minority for 9 months before calling another election from which he secured a majority.

The week following the election of a hung Parliament in May 2015 isn’t likely to resemble that of five years ago. Experience counts.


Written by James Plaskitt, former Labour MP for Warwick and Leamington.