John Rentoul: Clegg has blown it, after all that

The Lib Dem leader has shown his hand too early and may have missed the chance of a lifetime

Share
Related Topics

All three parties face a crisis after this election. In Labour's case, its response could decide whether or not the party survives at all. The crisis facing the other two parties is not so serious, but it is historic. David Cameron faces the Mervyn King Conundrum. The Governor of the Bank of England was alleged last week to have said that whoever wins this election will be "out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be". Mind you, when I mentioned this on the campaign trail last week, a cabinet minister almost spat: "It is always better to be in government than not." And so it is.

It is Labour and the Liberal Democrats who are really poised on the edge of a cliff. It is all too easy to imagine a Labour Party, overtaken by the Lib Dems in the popular vote, collapsing into recrimination and ideological warfare after Thursday. It is almost possible to smell the longing in large parts of the party for the comforts of opposition. The only thing that might save the party would be the bursting of the Lib Dem bubble. Fortunately for Labour, that is almost inevitable.

As soon as the polls close on Thursday – and let us assume that it really is a hung parliament – Nick Clegg ceases to be the transcendent alternative to the tedium of reality and becomes a politician haggling over the spoils. Whatever he chooses to do will instantly offend about half of his supporters. Because, tediously, the overwhelming likelihood is that either Gordon Brown or David Cameron will emerge as prime minister, and it will probably be Clegg's party that makes that decision. Which brings us to Clegg's great big mistake.

All three party leaders have made historic errors. By allowing the televised debates to go ahead, Cameron made the mistake of giving Clegg what his predecessors have long craved: parity of status. Clegg seized the chance, and for a while achieved parity in the opinion polls, too. It is notable that Cameron in his interview with us today seems to accept that he acted against his own interest in allowing the debates to go ahead. "Don't ever let it be said that politicians don't have some principles," he said, sounding rather forlorn.

Brown's mistake – well, there's no need to go into that. But it is Clegg who has made the most extraordinary strategic error. He says that he would allow Cameron to be prime minister if the Conservatives fail to win a majority on Thursday. If the opinion polls are right, or nearly right, the Conservatives will be the largest party in a hung parliament. In that case, Clegg has said, and repeats to us today, Cameron would have the "moral right" to seek to form a government. Instead of seizing that historic moment, that "one chance in a generation" of which he speaks, Clegg has already said which way he will jump. Because if Cameron is "seeking" to form a government, to whom should he apply? To one N Clegg Esq, of Cowley Street. But if N Clegg has already set out his doctrine of the mandate and said that Brown has "written himself out of the script", Cameron is in the car to Buckingham Palace before the Federal Executive of the Liberal Democrat party can say "d'Hondt quota". Clegg's ambiguity about whether his doctrine of the mandate is defined by votes or seats is irrelevant because, if the Conservatives have the most seats they would also have the most votes.

That's fine by me. If the choice at this election is between Cameron as prime minister with a majority, or Cameron as prime minister in a hung parliament, I prefer the latter. But if there is a hung parliament, the Lib Dems would probably be in a position to choose between Brown and Cameron. And if that is the choice, I would prefer Cameron.

I think the Conservatives will take the reduction of government borrowing more seriously, and their schools policy is right. I think too that Cameron is more likely to act in the national interest and would be better suited to the important task of explaining why difficult choices will have to be made. Although I do not approve of inheritance tax cuts or the marriage tax allowance, which is why the restraining influence of the Lib Dems would be beneficial.

So Clegg's error is fine for people like me. I even disagree with proportional representation. But it could be catastrophic for his party, although I can see why he did it. He desperately needs to appeal to Tory-minded voters, and for them, the Conservative slogan "Vote Clegg, get Brown", is a genuine deterrent. Our ComRes poll today shows a sharp switch in preferences from a Con-Lib coalition to a Tory majority. Last week's campaign against a hung parliament, of which we in the commenting community made such fun, seems to have been effective.

But he has thrown away most of his bargaining power. If Cameron fails to secure a majority, Clegg is almost bound to agree to his Queen's Speech and George Osborne's Budget. The Conservatives would have to offer only a few token concessions to make Clegg an offer he cannot refuse. The Lib Dems may abstain in the key votes in the House of Commons, but it would be apparent that Cameron governed by their permission. I do not know if that is Clegg's plan: to allow Cameron to have a go for a year or two before switching to a David Miliband-led Labour Party offering proportional representation. If it is, it is a rubbish plan. As I say, who knows what will have happened to the Labour Party by then? And if Cameron impresses, as I suspect he has the capacity to do, he may go back to the voters to ask for a working majority.

The way the opinion polls look this weekend, it may be that Cameron scrapes in with a majority in any case, despite his mistake of conceding the debates. If not, however, it may be that history will conclude that Clegg was the one who made the really big error.



John Rentoul's blog is at www.independent.co.uk

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice