Sean O'Grady: Get ready for Vince in Number 11

A Lib-Lab coalition has the air of inevitability about it
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The Independent Online

There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding about what will happen in the hung parliament that now seems inevitable. The misunderstanding is that Nick Clegg will find it difficult to extract concessions from Gordon Brown and that a Lib-Lab coalition would be tricky to put together. He won't and it wouldn't. In fact it has the air of inevitability about it. If he wants, Clegg can have the alternative vote, he can get Vince Cable into the Treasury, himself a nice cabinet job and junior posts for others, and, far more important, an agreed four-year programme for economic recovery and reducing the budget deficit. Job done.

Look at it from Brown's point of view. In a few weeks his political career could be over. For a man who, more even than most prime ministers, lives for politics and politics alone, that is death. In any case, Brown has come a long way from his past. When he was Chancellor and conducting his private war against Tony Blair and all his works, he was the single biggest roadblock to "the Project", the Blair-Ashdown plan to end the 80-year-old schism on the centre-left and bring the Liberal Democrats into government. Brown was having none of it. He didn't like having his independence interfered with by his own party leader, let alone Ashdown. The most Brown was prepared to offer Paddy was a job running a Customs and Excise investigation into cigarette smuggling. That said it all.

Then Brown became Prime Minister and he started recruiting goats for his government of all the talents. Out of the blue Ashdown was offered the job of Northern Ireland Secretary, and Shirley Williams became Brown's adviser on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. In the event Ashdown honourably turned the job down, but it showed the change in Brown.

So what are the chances of getting Vince into Number 11, the first Liberal Chancellor since 1916? High. After all, he is the "people's Chancellor", would obviously be popular and would be an asset to a Brown-led coalition government. A cabinet job for Nick Clegg would also be found, obviously. Brown may or may not have guaranteed Alistair Darling's tenure at the Treasury, but few of Brown's promises carry a triple-A credit rating.

What about electoral reform? One of the first pledges the Labour party reneged on was their 1997 manifesto commitment to a referendum on proportional representation. Surprisingly, in a document that Tony Blair fronted and David Miliband wrote, there was none o f the usual ambiguity: "We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system."

So all Clegg would be getting is a rather belated delivery of a 13-year-old broken promise. Besides, Brown has become enthusiastic about the alternative vote system, and promised a referendum on it. We needn't mention that he stopped Blair from implementing the Jenkins Committee's recommendation to implant a system based on the alternative vote back in 1998. The Liberals haven't had as good a chance of altering the voting system since 1931, when another minority Labour government ran out of time. We should not wait a further three-quarters of a century for another chance.

Last, and most vital, there is the agreed programme for economic recovery. Fortunately history provides a draft script: "We agreed today the basis on which the Liberal Party would work with the Government in the pursuit of economic recovery." That was the opening sentence of the joint statement in the names of the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, and the leader of the Liberal Party, David Steel, issued on 23 March 1977, the Book of Genesis for the Lib-Lab pact. The idea of two progressive parties taking tough but fair decisions in the interests of the nation is nothing new.

The public, remember, likes the idea of parties working together. Watching the Channel 4 "Ask the Chancellors" debate on Monday, it was obvious that Darling and Cable are far closer to each other than either is to Osborne. On the fundamental issues Lib Dems and Labour agree. All else is detail. The two parties ought to be able to agree policies that will rebalance us towards manufacturing, investment and exports. The difficult part would probably be finding points of difference.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, the Lib Dems could get cold feet, as in the past: the Lib Dems' "triple lock", requiring wide party agreement, could scupper the coalition. This says that a big majority of MPs and the Federal Executive have to agree a deal, and if they don't it then goes to a special conference and/or a ballot of the entire membership. It was passed at the 1998 conference precisely to stop Paddy Ashdown selling the party down the river to Blair, as they saw it, with nothing in return. But Blair had a 150-seat majority; he might have taken Ashdown prisoner. In a hung parliament, it will be Clegg who will be Brown's gaoler. The triple lock ought not to be an obstacle.

The Tories could cry foul. They could argue that they won the election by getting more votes than Labour, but that the electoral system is so skewed against them that "we wuz robbed" with fewer seats. True, as it happens, but strange indeed from a party that has rejected electoral reform out of hand. Doing the decent thing by letting the Tories in runs risks with the economy and social cohesion, and allows David Cameron all the advantages of incumbency, even in a minority government. It means he can pick the timing of the next election at his leisure – and he will choose the best time to put the Lib Dems in the South-west and Home Counties to the sword. Do not forget the nastiness of the Tory Party.

After four years of a confident Lib-Lab government nursing the economy back to growth the voters will have forgotten Cameron's squeals, and the possibility arises of another Lib-Lab term of office. And who knows who might get into Number 10 then, Nick.