Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The strange death of Lib-Lab coalition talks

One thing I found very puzzling about today's shenanigans, and that's the abortive nature of the talks between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This morning, the news was all of rainbow coalitions and "progressive" alliances. Paddy Ashdown turned up on the radio practically announcing the squalid deal as an inevitability. Labour tribalists looked forward to seeing the back of any hopes of Tory government, certainly in this Parliament, perhaps for ever.
Yet by lunchtime it was all over.

The Guardian reported that the Lib Dems' negotiating team were "unimpressed by the demeanour of the Labour negotiators, claiming they showed no real interest in a deal."

After several days of being showered with flowers and love-poems by an enamoured - or just plain desperate - Conservatives, the most they got from Labour was the equivalent of "get yer coat, luv, you've pulled." The Tory negotiators gave so much ground one Lib Dem source described it as "embarrassing". Mandelson and Co presented their interlocutors with a list of demands which even the fiercest anti-Tory would have found hard to accept. They were not, in short, serious negotiations.

By that stage, of course, the negative attitude of some Labour MPs (notably John Reid and David Blunkett) had probably put paid to any serious possibility of striking a deal on a minority coalition. But is it really so certain that the Parliamentary Labour Party would have rejected the opportunity of staying in power at almost any price? Had a deal been done - and many Lib Dems plainly believed that they were on the verge of achieving it - it's unlikely it would have been serious internal opposition after it had been announced. Not for a few weeks at any rate. And since when have New Labour insiders troubled themselves unduly with backbench opinion?

So what was going on? Either the Labour leaderhip's sense of entitlement, nurtured over thirteen years in government and several years of political ascendency before that, remained so great even after last week's drubbing at the polls that they had become utterly disconnected from reality. They actually believed that the Lib Dems were theirs to dispose of as they wished. Or there never was even the prospect of a deal. The secret talks between Clegg and Brown, the brilliantly-timed resignation announcement that had the more idiotic Lib Dems drooling and Tories in serious danger of spontaneous combustion, were all smoke and mirrors.

Knowing they were heading for Opposition, the evil geniuses (and they are geniuses, as well as being evil) Mandelson and Campbell, along with Gordon Brown, proceeded to do the only thing that was left to them: planting depth-charges underneath the incoming coalition. However chimerical, the prospect of an anti-Tory Ministry of all the talentless was irresistible to many on the Lib Dem benches, and Labour strategists knew it. While it was dangled before them, they would never agree to enter government with the Conservatives. That's why backbench dissatisfaction nearly derailed the talks even before Brown's dramatic announcement yesterday evening. Yet the deal - some sort of deal - would still have to happen, and when it did it would be perhaps fatally undermined by mistrust on the Tory side and dissatisfaction on the Lib Dems.

What happens when the going gets choppy? When the new "stable" government does what it has to do, and faces the electoral consequences? Will left-leaning Lib Dems start defecting to Labour? Or will the coalition collapse amid mutual recrimination, leaving the Lib Dems destroyed and the Conservatives out of office for another decade and a half? I don't know, but Mandelson has always seemed to me very like Lewis Carrol's crocodile, who "welcomes little fishes in/ with gently smiling jaws."