Some initial, random thoughts…
I keep hearing Clegg’s choice was a union with Labour as part of a rainbow coalition that didn’t really have the numbers, or the establishment of safe, secure government by joining with the Tories. This is just plain wrong.
Clegg was under no moral obligation to sustain a Tory minority government. The likely consequence of Clegg’s refusal to join a coalition with the Tories – Tory minority rule followed by another election in October – could not be laid at the door of the Lib Dems. Safe and stable is about more than numbers. There has to be some level of shared philosophy to deliver genuinely robust coalition government. A pragmatic refusal to sit down with Labour and an ideological aversion to supping with the Tories were both defensible and would be understood and supported by the majority of Lib Dem members, activists and supporters.
This doesn’t mean a case for partnership with the Tories cannot be made, but it cannot be predicated on the notion that Clegg effectively had no choice. He very much did, and now he must defend it.
There is already public disagreement about how negotiations with Labour panned out. Simon Hughes claimed Labour were never seriously contemplating partnership, whilst Labour spokespeople deny this and have hinted that the Lib Dem overtures to Labour were designed to increase Clegg’s leverage in talks with the Tories and nothing else. A charade, in other words. The detail will eventually emerge and if it transpires Labour put more on the table than the Tories, the Lib Dems will have some explaining to do.
It appears the Lib Dems have secured a referendum in the next parliament on Alternative Vote. This is no small concession from the Tories – who will of course campaign against AV come the referendum – but one imagines it falls short of what was on offer from Labour given this commitment of a referendum was a Labour manifesto pledge. At the very least, I expect AV+ was on offer from Labour, which Clegg himself backed as recently as March. There may even have been a promise of a referendum on STV. If any of this proves to be so, the thousands of Lib Dem supporters for whom electoral reform trumps all other issues will be aghast.
Quentin Letts has been talking about the changed dynamics of the anti-Conservative bloc, as in, there has been a permanent realignment and this bloc is no longer a major factor in UK politics. I think Quentin Letts is confusing the new parliamentary configuration with flesh and blood voters. Before this union, the Lib Dems were generally acknowledged to be a broad church, centre-left, progressive party and their voter demographic reflected that. The election produced a progressive aggregate vote of 52%. Those people haven’t gone away, Quentin. How many of them wake up tomorrow and reconcile themselves to the fact that they were, in fact, Lib-Con coalitionists after all, is something we’ll discover in time.
Vince Cable is expected to be no.2 at the Treasury. I give the Osborne-Cable dream-ticket 9 months. Cable began his political life in the Labour party and if I were going to bet on one thing, it would be that Cable crosses the floor in time for the next election.
We’re now hearing reports that there may be as many as 6 Cabinet posts for the Lib Dems and the guarantee of a Lib Dem in every department of state. This means half of the 57 Lib Dem MPs will be ministers in the coalition government. I’m sure aspirational Tory MPs are chuffed to bits. More importantly, I think some commentators are misreading the significance of Clegg’s success in grabbing a not inconsiderable chunk of political power. If the deal with the Tories is seen to be top-heavy with high-profile positions in the offices of state, the question will be asked by the rank and file whether more Tory policy concessions were possible if certain Lib Dem high-rollers had curbed their political ambitions just a little.
While I’ve been writing this, Paddy Ashdown has accused the Labour party of “cowardice” for walking away from the possibility of a progressive alliance. Simon Hughes has just said it was Labour’s fault that the Lib Dems were left with no choice but to join a coalition with the Tories. For which, see my first point about the third option of letting the Tories rule alone.
As for the progressive alliance, it is coming. Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes and Paddy Ashdown can look the other way – they clearly never were and now never will be part of it. But it’s coming.
On what should be a night of woe for lifeling Labour supporters such as myself, I feel stranglely at peace. I worry about the vulnerable who will suffer as they always do whenever a Conservative leader darkens the door of No.10, but if the prospects for a party newly saddled with opposition have ever looked brighter, I can’t remember when.
If any Lib Dem voters fancy joining a party unprepared to sell its soul for the baubles of office, click below.