“How am I glutted with conceit of this!
Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please,
Resolve me of all ambiguities,
Perform what desperate enterprise I will?”
If the reports are to be believed, the answer appears to be ‘yes’. Word has it that Cameron’s concession on electoral reform is the offer of a ‘free vote’ at some point in the next parliament to decide whether there should be a referendum. The insurmountable obstacle to a Lib-Con deal has been surmounted.
There are 306 Conservative MPs and once the delayed Thirsk and Malton vote is completed, that will rise to 307. Insofar as there’s such a thing in Northern Irish politics as a safe bet, we can assume the 5 Sinn Fein MPs will continue to stay away from Westminster, leaving us with 323 as the number needed to achieve a Commons majority.
It’s just about possible that a handful of Tory MPs will support the call for a referendum, so in order to defeat any vote – and it is a given that Cameron does not want a referendum –the Conservative government will be looking for the votes of about 20 odd MPs from other parties.
In other words, the offer of a Commons vote as a precursor to a referendum is as worthless as a Greek government bond. In Evan Harris’ words this morning, a deal on that basis – whatever other number of sops Clegg has managed to extract from Cameron – will “disappoint” MPs, activists and party members. In my words, if Clegg does not abjure this magic it will force the split of a party that, lest we forget, is really nothing more than a marriage of convenience between Whigs and Social Democrats.
Moreover, if the Lib-Con arrangement amounts to more than a simple confidence and supply agreement and starts to resemble a full-blown coalition with Lib Dems in the cabinet, then the less-palatable it will be to Lib Dem rank and file. The more power Clegg manages to get for the Lib Dems abandoning their equivalent of Labour’s minimum wage, the less integrity such a deal will have. At the first whiff of power, the Lib Dems will look to have sold their soul. And it will look like that, because that’s what they will have done.
Of course, Clegg will try to sell any deal as “in the nation’s best interests”, “putting the country before party”, but there is no moral or intellectual obligation on him to prop up a minority Conservative government. The economic crisis will still be there the day after any deal with a party whose plans for deficit reduction Lib Dems were branding “dangerous “ and “irresponsible” a matter of days ago. You cannot save the country by killing it.
As for Labour, it’s never great to lose an election, but one lost on this basis is about as good as it gets. They will fight the next election – which is either a couple of years or 6 months away, depending on whether the Lib-Con arrangement is a meaningful partnership or a quick fumble behind the bike-shed – on the back of a parliament in which swingeing cuts to public services have been made and which necessarily taints both, not just one of the other main parties. With scores of Lib Dem and Conservative marginals in their sights, a new leader and, in all probability, Vince Cable as shadow Chancellor, the prospects look bright indeed.