Gordon MacMillan,  UK Politics

Getting the deal done

The BBC is reporting that Liberal Democrat MPs are meeting to discuss David Cameron’s offer after Gordon Brown “ranted” at Nick Clegg in what was described as an “angry exchange”.

The very fact that the Lib Dems are not ruling out such a deal suggests Clegg will try to do a deal with Cameron while Brown remains as prime minister and leader of the Labour Party.

The BBC quoted a “senior Lib Dem source” saying Clegg apparently suggested Brown resign and unsurprisingly the conversation went “downhill” at a rate of knots. Saying Brown’s approach was a “diatribe” and “a rant” and “threatening” in approach to Clegg”.

Clegg looks really unlikely to work with Brown and his remaining in office could well prevent a deal from happening despite Labour and Lib Dems being natural political allies and together representing a majority of British voters.

I don’t know if Clegg is simply going through the motions with Cameron (we can give him the benefit of the doubt) or if he is personally committed to allowing the Tories govern as part of some misplaced sense of moral political certitude, but what is almost certainly true is that he will find it very hard to get such a deal through the so called “triple lock” that requires the support of two thirds of Lib Dem MPs and its federal executive committee.

The Lib Dems have very little in common with the Conservative party and any deal would only result in a con. It would be a con on party members and voters. Clegg can talk about education, tax reform and a fair approach to economic recovery as wins he might get from Cameron, but the fundamental issue is electoral reform and that is unlikely to be on the table with the Tories. Without electoral reform, the Lib Dems are just a party with with 23% of the vote and 57 seats.

Senior Tories don’t want a change to the voting system. It would be electoral suicide for them and could well result in the Tories never ruling alone again. Their sense of entitlement is never going to allow it – it is too much of a risk. Cameron can talk about offering a “review” of the electoral system, but that’s just playing for time, its a smokescreen and contains no real hint or promise of a platform for change or a programme for reform.

Senior Lib Dem MPs like Don Foster are already openly saying they would rather do a deal with Labour. Simon Hughes MP has said “we will also make sure we don’t betray our principles”. Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy has pointedly talked about the party remaining true to its pledges polices and made the central issue voting reform.

“I think everybody who voted Lib Dem a couple days ago rest assured our party will remain true to its pledges and its core polices what I think is very interesting about the events since the votes were counted is that lot of people in other parties are having to apply their political minds to the absurdities to a voting system that puts everybody in this position.”

The Labour Party is the only party putting electoral reform on the table and reports are circulating of senior Labour ministers talking to Lib Dem counterparts about a possible deal that brings in the smaller parties and leads to a referendum on electoral reform.

Such a deal will require sacrifices and one of those might well have to be Brown. It will be seen as a personal and wider political defeat, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Brown fought a tough battle and denied Cameron an overall majority. His campaign for all its missteps might eventually lead to sinking the Tories as a governing force for good. That is not a bad legacy.

However, having fought the campaign and set the stage if he is the sticking point then a dignified exit might be the best option for success and for the future of the Labour Party as it prepares to fight back.

The potential for that fight back is there. It can be clearly seen in how the party performed locally. It out performed the Conservatives and Lib Dems in local authority polls taking Sheffield and Liverpool councils from the Lib Dems and increased its number of councillors across England by 249. That’s an incredibly achievement in the face of a weakened PLP and it shows the strength of the party and its desire to fight at the grassroots level.

As the Guardian says today
“this weekend Labour and the Lib Dems should strike a fixed-term deal” to secure the economic recovery and hold a referendum on electoral reform with a new general election to follow in a timely fashion and finish the job.

It is the only deal that makes sense and it is the deal that a majority of voters indicated they supported when they voted. That’s all that should count.

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