Be careful what you wish for. Nick Clegg will have woken up on Thursday morning dreaming of 100+ Parliamentary seats for the Liberal Democrats and a role as kingmaker in a possible hung Parliament. Instead, he went to sleep knowing that his party failed to move forward in terms of seats, and that while his position as kingmaker did materialise, it could well turn out to be the most poisoned of chalices.
Put simply, Clegg can’t win either way. If he does a deal with the Conservatives, he’ll likely have to give up on the chance of a referendum on electoral reform, and the rank-and-file of his party members will be thoroughly unhappy, partly because politically the Lib Dems are closer to Labour. The countless pressure groups currently demonstrating about the need for electoral reform might never forgive him. However, if he rejects the Tory proposals and instead does a deal with Labour, then he faces different problems. The majority of the media will annihilate him, he’ll be seen as acting out of narrow self-interest just because of Brown’s proportional referendum bribe, and he’ll be helping to prop up a man he personally dislikes who lost the election. That won’t appeal to his sense of fair play or desire to act in the national interest, and any Government which results will be seen by a large portion of the electorate to have zero legitimacy. Insisting on a new Labour leader might be an option, but Brown shows every sign of clinging on for as long as he possibly can, and how can Britain have an unelected Prime Minister from day one of a new Parliament? And how can insisting on PR as a deal-breaker when 39% of the voting public supported the party which ruled out such a change, possibly be seen as democratic? It’s a toughie and no mistake.
But spare a thought for David Cameron, who also faces huge problems. How will he take his party with him if he needs to compromise heavily to get either a “confidence and supply” commitment for the Lib Dems not to vote down a Queen’s Speech and emergency budget, or deliver something on electoral reform to ensure an uneasy coalition? The fact is that the Tories have always been against PR, partly because they can’t see the prospect of ever getting another majority under the system, and also because they have a belief that it will only result in weak Government.
There is an elephant in the room, however, which a forward-looking Cameron might consider. The political map is so different between England and Scotland that were the SNP to win the referendum on Scottish independence in 2011, the chances are that Labour would be dealt a fatal blow in terms of ever being able to win a UK general election again. They have 41 seats north of the border and, some would say, a Scottish mafia currently running the party. So an uneasy alliance with the Liberals, with the promise of a referendum on PR in which the Tories would campaign for a “no” vote, could turn out to be the best option for the Conservatives. After all, it would be quite possible that the first-past-the-post system would remain (particularly with the right wing press inevitably pressing for a “no” vote), and Labour’s Scottish heartlands may no longer be part of a UK general election from next year.
The latter could be good for Clegg too. With Labour weakened, the Lib Dems could be well on the way to becoming the natural party of the left. Indeed, given the right set of circumstances Labour could be destroyed as an electoral force, with the Tories’ proposed redrawn constituency boundaries giving the Lib Dems a fighting chance even under FPTP.
With so many permutations, possible suppositions and problems present in every scenario, it’s all a head-scratcher. But a “Coalition For Change” has a nice ring to it, and if come the end of Monday no deal is done, the financial markets are going to go into meltdown.
No pressure then, Mr Clegg. Your day of destiny awaits.