I almost never have a good word to say for the Lib-Dems, but I must admit that some of the strident criticism that Nick Clegg has faced, as he considers his options, has been a little over-egged. By a quirk of our electoral system, he finds himself, probably once in a lifetime (for him and his party) in a unique position of influence. Like a diamond miner with his once-in-a-lifetime 100-carat stone, Clegg is going to talk to potential bidders and exact the best price he can. Fair enough. But he still faces a tough call: to work with the Conservatives and see massive dissension in his party, or to work with Labour and face a public backlash.
I heard Caroline Lucas on the Today programme today saying that a Lib-Lab deal was perfectly legitimate, because “the most of the public had voted for a combination of Lib-Dem and Labour”. I have news for Caroline — no one voted for a combination of Lib-Dem and Labour (or if they did, it was a spoiled paper and their vote was not counted). The idea that people “vote for a coalition” or “vote for a hung parliament” is a bizarre construct of the commentariat. The overwhelming majority of voters voted either Conservative, or Labour, or Lib-Dem, and presumably most of them wanted to see a majority government formed by their preferred party.
So where do we go from here?
As I understand the constitutional position, the incumbent Prime Minister has the first opportunity to see if he can form a government. (Do we have an incumbent Prime Minister, you may well ask? Hasn’t Gordon Brown resigned? He seems to have half-resigned). The key test comes later this month, when some kind of Queen’s Speech or programme for government has to be presented to the Commons. If that succeeds, the government can continue indefinitely (until 2015), or until it falls on a vote of confidence. If it fell, the Queen would call on whomever she considered capable of forming an administration — clearly, in this case, David Cameron. He could then either seek coalition partners, or seek to operate a minority government.
I’m beginning to suspect that we might in fact get a fragile Lib-Lab coalition.
The consequence would be great public anger and resentment against both parties in this “coalition of losers”. The public would see a Lib-Lab pact as, first, a failed Labour administration clinging to power by its fingernails with a shabby deal; and second, a Lib-Dem party propping up a Labour administration which the voters had roundly rejected. So neither would look good — and both would attract opprobrium for the budgetary measures they would be forced to take.
We’d probably see a second General Election in October, in which I could well imagine a majority Conservative government being formed. So I would not see an immediate Lib-Lab pact as a disaster by any means.
One thing has been achieved: the public can now compare all the fluffy talk about “cooperation” and “parties working together for the common good”, with the tarnished reality of a hung parliament. PR would guarantee a permanent hung parliament, with no escape route.