Saturday, May 08, 2010

Clegg – deal or no deal?

Nick Clegg will today go to his party and test the water as he considers the deal put forward by David Cameron and decides whether he will throw his lot in with Tories and allow David Cameron to form the first Tory government since 1997.

The deal on the table from Cameron can surely be improved. For it contains no promise of electoral reform, merely the promise of "a cross-party committee of inquiry into electoral reform," which sounds to me as an attempt by Cameron to kick the entire notion into the long grass.

Brown is offering Clegg something more substantive, a referendum on what the public think of electoral reform, but that also has no guarantee of success. Clegg would have to convince the public that PR is the best way forward.

In an extraordinary day of political horsetrading, held against the background of volatile markets, Cameron said he was open either to a full coalition with the Liberal Democrats or a formal agreement whereby a minority Tory government was guaranteed more than the passage of its budget and the Queen's speech.

The carefully crafted proposal was designed to trump a rival earlier offer made to Clegg by Brown, who made a statement outside Downing Street in which he insisted he was getting on with government while the Conservatives and Lib Dems began negotiating. Brown made clear he would continue as prime minister until a deal was done. He said it was his "constitutional duty to seek to resolve the situation for the good of the country".

Cameron then took the initiative after an unexpectedly resilient Labour campaign left the Conservatives with 307 seats, a net rise of 98, but 17 seats short of an overall majority. Cameron's setback was greeted with relief by Labour, which finished with 258 MPs, down 91. The Lib Dems were surprisingly down five seats on 57, with other parties on 28. The Conservatives got a 36.1% share of the vote (up 3.8%), Labour 29.1% (down 6.2%) and the Lib Dems 23% (up 1%).

Facing fierce internal party criticism over his campaign's effectiveness, Cameron had to tread carefully in making his offer to Clegg in order not to spark a rebellion among his MPs, who are deeply worried electoral reform would leave them shut out of government for decades.

Cameron's Conservative party are understandably disappointed with the campaign he has run and are furious that he has been forced to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats. They think, as I do, that he should have walked this election. And they, rightly, realise that a deal on PR will leave them - remember they took a mere 36.1% of the vote - out of power forever should Cameron ever concede to such electoral reform.

Which is why Clegg should be sceptical of any offer which promises merely to have "a cross-party committee of inquiry into electoral reform". If it's not in the Conservative party's interest to have PR only a fool would believe that such a vague term has any value.

Clegg has flirted with the Tories throughout this election, but we were always going to arrive at the day when he had to sell what he was saying to his own party. That day is suddenly here.

I feel quite sure that the Liberal Democrats will see through what Cameron is offering.

The very least the Liberal Democrats will demand is something much more concrete than the vague promises which Cameron has, at this moment, put on the table.

That will then leave Cameron the tricky task of convincing the Tories that they should bite the bullet and agree to a form of voting which threatens them with future annihilation.

I have never understood how these two parties are going to end up in bed together. But their courtship has a strange fascination. If only to watch how opposites attract.

But any marriage which they forge will be certain to end in tears.


Jonathan Freedland describes Clegg's dilemma:

Besides, and more crudely, Cameron hasn't offered Clegg enough – so far. All he pledged on the Lib Dem holy grail issue of electoral reform was an all-party inquiry. That's the most meagre form of promise in the political vocabulary. Perhaps it's an opening bid and will improve with negotiation. Or maybe the Tory leader's unreconstructed backbenchers will allow him to go no further, refusing to grant what the Lib Dems yearn for: proportional representation.

Clegg can see the trap here. If he rejects Tory advances over PR, the Conservatives will slam the Lib Dems for putting their narrow, anorak obsession with the electoral system ahead of Cameron's much-vaunted "national interest". That's the Tories' game: to make Clegg an offer he'll look churlish to refuse.

If he looks leftward, he'll find a Labour prime minister all but gagging to do a deal, promising the earth on electoral reform. Some Lib Dems in Tory seats will object, but most would feel more comfortable with Labour than they ever would with the Conservatives. And yet there are downsides. A Lib-Lab government would be branded a coalition of losers, one that vindicated the Tory slogan "Vote Clegg, get Brown".

The problem with Clegg's stance is that he was always promising to align his party with a conservative movement on the very opposite side of the political spectrum from his own.

That's easy to say, but it's almost impossible to actually pull it off. Either the Tories are agreeing to be elected to do bugger all, or Clegg is going to ask his own party to become enablers for a set of policies which are toxic to them.

For this marriage to work one of the partners has to pretend that they no longer believe in the very things which have, up until now, defined them.

Click here for full article.

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