Simon Carr: Coalition Man (aka Bill Rogers) and a history lesson in pacts

Sketch: The Lib Dems may go all out for a fat slice of Cabinet seats based on a share of the vote
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The Independent Online

By a happy chance, as talk of coalitions is in the air, there is a visitor to Chris Huhne's constituency who knows all about them. It's Lord (Bill) Rogers, a veteran of the famous Lib-Lab pact all those years ago.

He goes back even further than that of course: his first political memory was heckling Tories in 1945. "Blood running in the streets of Birkenhead!" he recalled. "And afterwards I approached the stage and the old Tory I'd heckled said, 'Good lad. Do you like gels? Well here are two tickets for the Conservative ball, go and enjoy yourself!'"

That really was a different world. Petticoats, coster-mongers, Max Miller at the Hippodrome and heckling at political meetings without getting Tasered by armed policemen in body armour.

Anyway, here we are with Chris Huhne who is a man of whiskers. He won Eastleigh by a whisker, and he lost the Lib-Dem leadership by one as well. Will he get back? He probably will, even in spite of what he smoothly calls "the Tory surge" (when we flatfoots are still referring to "the Lib-Dem surge").

He was doing a television interview and was asked about a coalition but he's not having any of it: "I want to see Nick in Number 10!" Maybe I haven't been paying attention but I haven't heard this from the Lib-Dems during this campaign. The Clegg Dancer as prime minister. Did he mean to say that?

Huhne seemed serious enough: "The poll finding that The Sun suppressed was that 49 per cent of people want a Lib-Dem government." Stranger things are imaginable. Unicorns, say.

Huhne is rather brilliantly placed in the coalition that is the Liberal Democrats. He's worked for The Economist, The Guardian and The Independent. I suspect he's economically drier than one wing and more inclined to liberties – but also indulgent of regulation, some dirigisme and that damnfool multilateral council for stability they're proposing.

But what did the old hand Lord Rogers advise? What were the ancestral lessons of the SDP negotiations, and the Lib-Lab pact?

Lord Bill said: "We didn't ask for enough. We could have asked for very much more. But we were new, young, inexperienced ... and faced with the prime minister." They too were different in those days. "Faced with losing, the Labour Party would have done anything to survive. Anything. We didn't ask for enough."

Yes, undeniably. There's a lesson in there. But would a coalition be strictly necessary? Dangerous as they are. And the viciousness of politics inside the Labour Party, was it wise to enter into that rabid rats' nest?

Couldn't the Lib Dems just support measures being put through by a minority government? Lord Bill had a phrase here: "There's nothing like the hard currency of getting your own key people into place."

That's true too. If Lord Bill's view prevails they may very well go all out for a big, fat slice of Cabinet seats based on a share of the vote.

Hell's bells, now I see it. If the Lib Dems get 28 per cent of the vote and Labour get 27 per cent, they could proportionately demand a one-seat majority in Cabinet in order to elect the prime minister of their choice.

And what's that we suddenly hear? It's the thunder of unicorns dancing down Whitehall.

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