Monday, May 10, 2010

General election 2010: Deadline day for Conservative-Lib Dem deal.

Nick Clegg is said to have given himself until the end of today to see if he can come to an agreement with the Tories, but he has also been holding secret meetings with Labour, expressing his worry that a deal with them might be seen as illegitimate.

Clegg met Gordon Brown for an hour at the Foreign Office today and is understood to have set out his fear that a Lib-Lab coalition might be regarded as illegitimate even if Brown stood down as its leader.

Senior cabinet figures have told Brown in the last 48 hours that he should stand down and operate merely as a transitional figure for an unspecified period.

Brown is said to be willing to step aside in due course, with some cabinet hardliners saying he should quit before a referendum on electoral reform and that his presence would taint the outcome.

In these circumstances, the rules provide for the cabinet to choose a leader from within its ranks. No agreement exists as to the identity of this figure, but the likely options are Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, or foreign secretary David Miliband. Some cabinet ministers were privately urging the Lib Dems to call for Brown to go as a precondition of an agreement.

They very fact that Clegg is having conversations with Brown implies that he is getting nowhere with the Tories when it comes to PR. Why would he even risk taking part in a coalition which he worries might look illegitimate if was being offered what he wanted elsewhere?

Cameron clearly thinks that Clegg wouldn't dare do a deal with Labour, which is why he is playing such a high risk game.

Brown, who returned to Downing Street from Scotland with his family today, has also promised that he would pass legislation on electoral reform almost immediately. There have also been Labour guarantees about caps on spending in the referendum.

In contrast, Cameron would not be able to back electoral reform even if he granted a referendum. Senior Tories such as Graham Brady, the rights candidate for chairmanship of the 1922 committee of backbenchers, said his instinct was for a Cameron minority government, partly due to his fear of electoral reform.

Many Tories see a proportional voting system as likely to exclude the Tories from government for generations, as well as destroying the cherished link between MPs and their constituencies.

Clegg now has to decide whether he came into politics to be popular or whether he came into politics to get things done. His party has long dreamed of the day when it could implement proportional representation, and that day has arrived. But only if Clegg will align himself with an unpopular leader.

This is Clegg's big moment in the sun. It will never come again. He either grasps the nettle now, or proportional representation disappears for another generation.

At times like this I always find myself thinking of Margaret Thatcher. She never cared that lots of us hated her, she believed in what she believed in and she set about getting it done. We will find out soon if Clegg is made of similar stuff.

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