Sunday, May 09, 2010

Go home to your constituencies and prepare for disappointment

All the signs are that over the next day or so, David Cameron will be able to declare that he has the support of the Liberal Democrats to allow him a shot at forming a government. Gordon Brown will then resign as Prime Minister - and probably as party leader as well.

It remains to be seen whether Clegg will go for a full coalition or a 'supply and confidence' path, with an assurance that the Liberals will support the Tories in key financial bills and on matters of confidence, but will reserve the right to vote on party lines on other issues. Full coalition may be an unwise political move, as it would tie the Liberals in to whatever the Conservative party does and it may also require concessions beyond that which the Tory party will support and there are suggestions that the more tepid option may be taken - engagement rather than full consummation. It will, I expect, also carry a promise that the deal will survive for a number of years - I would guess that it will last for the next four - rather like the concordat agreed between the Tories and the Liberals in Birmingham.

What has become clear over the past couple of days is that whatever the deal eventually turns out to be, it will not include a commitment to PR, a totemic policy since the formation of the party, but anathema to the Conservatives, who seem happy to continue with a faulty electoral system. Whether this will satisfy the Liberal party members, many of whom hold this as an absolute deal-breaker, is also up for question. Many Liberal voters, who thought that they were voting for a progressive party, may also have cause to feel disappointed, but those of us who live with the Liberal/Conservative coalition in Birmingham know that these two parties can work closely together. Or rather, the Liberals quickly get to like the trappings of office and sell out their principles faster than you can say ministerial car.

Another major problem for the parties is Europe. The Conservatives have shifted firmly to the Eurosceptics, with Ken Clarke the leader of a declining pro-European faction in the party, while the Liberals remain the most Europhiliac of any of the parties. At the moment, there seems to be little appetite for a fight over European issues, but if the Tories try to make good on their fanciful proposals to return to the European negotiating table over a number of issues, will the Liberals stand loyally by and let them do it? Or will this be one of those things that Cameron will be pragmatically able to let slide and return to should there be another term of Conservative government? I'm not aware of any major EU issues coming down the track and the Eurozone is currently focussed on keeping itself solvent rather than causing any new problems.

I hold little hope for Clegg coming to talk seriously to Gordon about coalition. The maths just about allows it as a parliamentary possibility, but it would force the involvement of the nationalist parties and those from Northern Ireland as well, creating a coalition that can govern until the first by-election. We don't want to struggle on as the Tories did after 1992, where each by-election heralded defeat and another chip away from the tiny majority. That is not a recipe for good governance, rather a signpost towards the wilderness. We have a chance to go away, lick our wounds and regroup, coming back - possibly as soon as the autumn - with a progressive agenda ready to put to the country.

For Labour, the need will be to get the blood-letting over and done with quickly. Gordon will almost certainly decide to resign and we will have to select a replacement. I'm hopeful that it will be a quick contest - 12 weeks is what the rulebook says - and that we'll get a chance to vote on the contenders rather than a single candidate emerging. One or both of the Millibands should be in there with Ed Balls and possibly Alan Johnson or even Alistair Darling in the running. It needs to be quick so that we can get back on to a war footing in double quick time, for if parliamentary history teaches us anything, it is that coalition agreements have a habit of falling apart fairly quickly. What we can't afford is a long-drawn out battle between left, right and centre and we need to learn from the Tories in 1997 and ourselves in 1979, the mistakes that we must avoid.

When the time comes - and come it will - we need to be ready to take on the Conservatives and their new chums, the Liberals. Fighting amongst ourselves will render us unelectable and that is something that is inconceivable.

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