I was singing The Riddle by Nik Kershaw to myself earlier, which was a bit weird. Loved this song when I was younger, even though the words are a bit nonsensical, but it seems to accurately sum-up how Nick Clegg is probably thinking right now – how the heck do we work this one out?
My predictions weren’t exactly spot on in terms of seat numbers, but the overall result was the same – the Tories won the most seats, followed by Labour after big losses and the Lib Dems trailing in 3rd with enough seats to hold the balance of power. The democratic arithmetic is a little bit different though.
Assuming the Tories hold Thirsk and Malton, which won’t be balloted for three weeks due to the death of the UKIP candidate after nominations closed, they will have 307 seats. This is 19 short of an absolute majority, but probably only just short of a working majority. The only other party that are even remotely likely to automatically follow them are the DUP and the 8 seats bring them a “unionist” block up to 315. Similarly, Labour can only 100% rely on the SDLP’s 3 seats, giving them 261, meaning that they absolutely need the Lib Dems in order to govern in any form.
Which brings us to the Lib Dems decision. One thing that seems clear to me is that electorate doesn’t want to be subjected to this all again in short order – this result marks out that we need a more consensus politics to get the country out of the economic doldrums with the added benefit of pushing towards a more representative voting system. Therefore, the onus is on them to make a deal of some sort with either Labour or the Tories.
Both Brown and Clegg have, quite rightly, allowed Cameron first shot at forming a government. This avoids a potential constitutional crisis if the latter had ignored the existing convention and pressed on or Brown had insisted on his rights as PM in the same way as Ted Heath did in Feb 1974. This has been conceded by Brown either as an act of humility, which I won’t rule out, or a realisation that anything else was democratic suicide. Alternatively, he (or more accurately, Peter Mandelson) is hoping that Cameron fails and highlights that the Tories are not the party who could build consensus, given legitimacy to a Labour/Lib Dem coalition.
It would appear that contact has now been made between Cameron and Clegg, following the former’s public plea this afternoon. He struggled to use the word “coalition” but it is unclear what the exact terms will be on offer, other than the lightweight all-party inquiry on electoral reform. However, I suspect that Cameron’s line of attack could be slightly different and place Clegg in the invidious position of having to choose between ideology and pragmatism.
If the Lib Dems position going into the negotiations is that fundamental electoral reform is a dealbreaker – suggested by Robert Peston on the BBC as being a basic cost of propping up a Labour administration – this is an anathema to the Tories. Why would these turkeys vote for Christmas when, on the existing constitutional settlement of devolution, they could be shut out of Westminster Government for generations?
Therefore, I can see the question being posed by Cameron to Clegg being as follows: will you put party political ideology ahead of the altruistic opportunity to do some good in the “national interest”? This phrase is important, because Clegg used it this morning. If they are offered 3 or 4 cabinet posts, including at least one of the big 3 (Treasury, Home, Foreign) and the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the economic recovery, in order to drop an absolute requirement for electoral reform, this would be a very clever move. It would be seen as a consensual strategy and strengthens Cameron’s claims to legitimacy.
How would Lib Dem voters feel about this? The blogosphere and tweetnation have not reacted well to the suggestions of a deal that dumps calls for fundamental electoral reform, suggesting that Clegg could lose the favour of his own party’s support. If a large proportion of Lib Dem voters have gone that way, like myself, on the basis that it would prevent the Tories taking power, it is a very bitter pill to swallow to see him turn around and support a Tory administration having given away his trump card.
Until it is clear whether or not Clegg will jump this way, it feels academic to talk about the machinations of a potential Lab/LD coalition. I might have to come back to that question sooner rather than later as the indications today were that the financial markets may not look favourably upon uncertainty persisting well into next week. I am expecting that we will know in the next 24 hours whether or not Cameron is on course for Downing Street. This would leave a further 24 hours for a potential centre-left coalition to be formed – possibly including the SNP and Plaid Cymru, given that Labour has already opened those negotiations.