Can the Lib Dems get out of bed with the Tories?

Evan Harris, memorably defeated in Oxford West by a god-bothering light soprano, writes in the Guardian that

Some say we will also be fighting the next election on a joint record of achievement with the Tories. We must reject that. Whatever the benefits of ministerial solidarity and collective responsibility for government stability... at the next election we must communicate clearly those coalition achievements that we supported and those we did not. It is essential to the voters' understanding of what the Lib Dems stand for.

Many Lib Dems, meeting this week in Liverpool, would like to agree. It doesn't work, though, if only because with the exception of a few small items set out in the coalition agreement, the Lib Dems will indeed have "supported" - in the sense of voted for (and what other sense is there?) everything the coalition government has done. Does Harris really expect Lib Dem MPs seeking re-election to tell their constituents, "we didn't really support X, Y and Z but we voted for them anyway"? Would that sound like principled politics? Of course, MPs don't always (don't often) allow their conscience to trump the party whip - but where the party leadership has applied the whip it would be complete nonsense for it to then disassociate itself from those very policies it brought into being.

But of course that is precisely what the party will have to do if it is to plausibly offer its voters the prospect of anything other than continued Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition. At the last election, Nick Clegg virtually promised to do a deal with whichever of the two larger parties won the most popular support. To his credit - though mathematically he had little option - he kept that promise. But it was in most respects (and whatever Paddy Ashdown said at the time) a no-brainer. Gordon Brown lost the election. For Clegg to have propped him up would have been, and would have appeared, a democratic outrage.

Such a simple position will be harder to sustain next time, because while technically the public will be faced with a choice between the usual three (leaving aside Ukip and the Greens, not to mention the BNP, because they don't really count, not really) in practice the next election, like previous ones, will be a referendum on the government, a choice between government and opposition. It may happen that Labour regain their position as the single largest party, with the Lib Dems, as usual, well down in third - but still, with the Tories, representing a majority of votes cast. Let's imagine, too, that the difference in seat numbers between the two main parties is narrower than after 2010, so that a deal between the Lib Dems and either of the others is mathematically plausible. The question then is surely: did the British people re-elect the government? And the answer is equally surely, yes.

A majority Lib Dem government, after all, will no more be on the cards at the next election than it was at the last. If (and I hope not) the AV referendum is carried, then it's a fair bet that transfers will predominantly be between the Lib Dems and the Tories. Labour voters may in some circumstances give their second preferences to the Lib Dems out of a desire to keep out a Tory. But it won't work in reverse, will it? Who is going to vote Lib Dem first and Labour second? Someone who doesn't like the government, presumably - and most such people will vote Labour in the first place. But with or without AV, it will be impossible for any voter to put out of their mind the fact that the Lib Dems have been a full member of a coalition government for the previous five years - a government in which they have, in fact, punched above their weight. Yet this is what Evan Harris seems to imagine:

Nick has rightly rejected electoral pacts with any other party at the next election. But we need to go further. We must rule out any pre-election preference for future working with any other party. We will have been in government with the Tories in this parliament and our ministers will feel varying degrees of comfort about it. But that means nothing in terms of future potential coalitions. In fact, we must make sure that we are in a position to "dock" with the Labour party if the parliamentary numbers work and there is relevant policy overlap – regardless of what a wounded Labour party is saying now.

Attempting to distance the party from the Conservatives in terms of their manifesto is one thing. Attempting to separate it from its own actions in government is quite another. It would look just dishonest. It would portray the Lib Dems as a collection of political opportunists with no principle other than being in power - just as it was once said of Palmerston that his only conviction about government was that he ought to be part of it. But most importantly, the voters won't buy it. Harris's proposal may seem logically coherent, and will certainly appeal to the semi-detached political mindset of many Lib Dem members, but it just isn't practical politics.

What is practical politics is far too early to tell. Everything will depend on whether the coalition continues to be reasonably popular, whether its policies are seen as successful, whether Labour sinks further into the doldrums or transforms itself rapidly into an effective opposition. In other words, everything will depend on who wins the election.

I suspect that the least likely outcome will be a hung Parliament with the Lib Dems free to enter into a coalition agreement with the largest party. Even if the mathematics allowed such a thing, the politics might not, with David Cameron seizing on the fact that, with a working majority and a majority of votes cast, the coalition had not been voted out. Only a situation leaving Labour a few seats short of majority, with the mood of the country obviously hostile to the coalition, would allow the Lib Dems the opportunity to extricate themselves from the Tory embrace. But in that case, it would scarcely be in Labour's interest to enter into a new coalition arrangement. The Lib Dems - much reduced in numbers, I suspect - would end up doing penance for their role in government by propping up a minority Labour administration, and getting precious little thanks in return.

But this is unlikely. Whichever voting system is in play will most probably produce a majority or near-majority government; neither David Cameron nor the new Labour leader will need the Liberal Democrats. A Conservative victory would raise an interesting possibility, however. Lib Dem ministers, having grown accustomed to office and having shared in the achievements of a re-elected government, may well be loath to be ejected from office by their partners. And if the Liberals find it difficult to stand on an anti-government manifesto, it will be still harder for the Conservatives to blame all the coalition's failures on the Lib Dems. Unless the Tory victory is overwhelming, then, and unless the Lib Dems had already abandoned the coalition well before the election, I would expect to see some sort of offer being extended to Lib Dems to keep the coalition going, in name at least - and the slow absorption of the Lib Dem right into the Conservative party. It has happened before, after all. And Nick Clegg does make a most convincing Tory.


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