7 Aug 2012

Was yesterday the Lib Dems’ first step towards a 2015 coalition with Labour?

There’s much despair in Conservative ranks today, as MPs and activists suddenly wake up to how hard it’s now going to be to win an outright majority at the next election.

Tim Montgomerie on the Conservative Home website describes it as the party’s worst day since Black Wednesday 20 years ago.

The proposed new constituency boundaries were expected to be the equivalent of an extra 20 seats for the Conservatives at the next election.  That may not sound much but consider what Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, one of Britain’s foremost election analysts, said today: “With the boundary review in place, the seven-point lead over Labour the Tories secured in 2010 might just have been enough to secure a narrow overall majority.

“Without it, then, on the conventional calculations, the party will need no less than an 11-point lead – not just one more heave but a landslide. With the party now finally beginning to suffer mid-term blues, achieving such a result has come to look like a bit of a tall order.”

That’s a difference of 4 per cent, quite substantial in electoral terms.  And Tim Montgomerie points out that the Conservatives only gained 3 per cent during in the 2005-10 parliament.  And then the party was in opposition.  A majority Conservative government in 2015 suddenly looks a lot, lot less likely.

The best David Cameron can probably hope for is that he again emerges as leader of the largest party.  Let’s imagine that happens, and so as in 2010 he enters talks in the Cabinet Office with the Lib Dems to see what kind of deal they can reach.  Only in 2015 it’s likely (on current polling form) to be a rather smaller group of Lib Dem MPs, which gives their claim for a place in Government a bit less legitimacy.

So what does Cameron talk about with Nick Clegg (let’s assume for now that’s it’s still Nick Clegg, though that’s far from certain)?  What kind of 2015 Coalition Agreement could they cobble together for another five-year term? 

It’s hard to think of anything substantial which the parties would agree on which hasn’t already been done, or is likely to done in the remaining two-and-a-half years of this parliament.  One thing is sure, David Cameron won’t be able to offer Nick Clegg his much treasured reform of the House of Lords reform. 

“You’ve got to be joking,” would be Clegg’s reply.  “You simply can’t deliver your MPs.  How would things be any different next time to what happened back in 2012, even if Jesse Norman and Nadhim Zahawi are now in your Cabinet?”  And on everything else the larger of joint policies for the Conservatives and Lib dems to pursue would be pretty much exhausted.

Ed Miliband, in contrast, would now have the trump card to play with the Lib Dems.  He could offer them Lords reform as the centrepiece of a new constitutional reform package, and no doubt the problems of a timetable to get the new Lords bill through the Commons would suddenly vanish.  And there’d be a lot more besides on which the two parties could agree – the rate of cuts, Europe, the environment, housing, City regulation and so on, especially if the Lib Dems replaced Nick Clegg with someone more congenial to Labour.

It was probably not intended as such, but Nick Clegg’s speech yesterday may have in effect come to be seen as the first step towards the Lib Dems joining Labour in government.

No wonder many Conservatives are so gloomy today.  They survey the future with no better prospect of another five years in government with a party with whom they have less and less in common – or alternatively five years in minority government on their own, with all the perils that involves.  Neither prospect looks at all appetising.  Both would imply five years of doing not very much.

Having said all this, there does seem a surprising optimism in Downing Street right now that “something” will come up in the next 14 months which enables the Tories to get the boundary changes through in time for 2015.  But what can Cameron come up with which will persuade the Lib Dems to come back on board, especially when it’s reckoned a dozen Lib Dems would lose their seats under the new constituency map?  Something substantial on party funding perhaps?

Then the parliamentary arithmetic, if nearly every Conservative MP votes for the changes in the autumn of next year along perhaps with the eight Democratic Unionist MPs, and if the Lib Dem payroll vote of ministers and PPSs could somehow be be persuaded to abstain, might just get the boundaries through the Commons.  But it’s another tall order, involving several “ifs”.

And then there’d be the problem of getting the new boundaries through the Lords, where Labour currently outnumbers the Conservatives.  Getting the new boundaries through the upper house would be extremely difficult without appointing a lot more Conservative peers. 

That would be the ultimate irony of a saga that contains several ironies already – like appointing more unelected lords so as to reduce the size of the elected Commons.

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