The polls suggest a hung parliament is highly likely after the next election. In which case, what would the Liberal Democrats do? Would they seek to dance with the Conservatives, or hold hands with Labour? The question has been posed persistently at their conference in Brighton. Everyone, from the leadership down, refuses to address it. Yet the answer is clear. After spending a few days at their conference in Brighton, I am certain I know how the Liberal Democrats will act if no party wins an overall majority at the next election.
Let us take first the possibility of a formal arrangement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Superficially, this seems the most probable scenario. If the Tories wipe away Labour's still-mighty majority, David Cameron would be the leader taking most bows on election night. If Mr Cameron could persuade the Liberal Democrats to join him on the dance floor, he would be Prime Minister.
Not surprisingly, Mr Cameron invites Sir Ming Campbell over for the occasional cup of tea in his office. Tentatively, he seeks some early common ground. The stakes are high. Could Mr Cameron get to Downing Street leading a Con/Lib coalition?
Mr Cameron need not bother making cups of tea for Sir Ming, if that is his objective. It will not happen. Anyone who listened to the Liberal Democrats' debate on tax policies on Tuesday would recognise this is a left-of-centre party, gripped by the need to redistribute widely, and to raise cash for some expensive spending commitments, such as the abolition of top-up fees for students. Those speaking in favour of the new economic package argued passionately that the proposals redistributed more extensively than the party's previous policies. Opponents of the proposals protested that there was a need to redistribute more widely still, and to raise additional money for the party's spending commitments. It was a good debate, and one the two bigger parties would be too scared to stage.
Still, in daring to be open, the Liberal Democrats show how far away they are from the Conservatives. Even under the apparently more centrist leadership of Mr Cameron, the Conservatives yearn for tax cuts and are not bothered about redistribution. Indeed, a mini row in the Conservative Party over tax was obscured recently by the eruption of hostilities in the Cabinet. Several leading Conservatives have been calling for a renewed emphasis on tax cuts.
Presumably, that is the instinct of the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, who one year ago was highlighting the merits of an iniquitous flat tax. He is being more restrained now, but the Conservatives' comfortingly vague slogan about using the proceeds of growth on tax cuts and public spending disguises a hunger in some parts of the party for sweeping tax cuts. On the fundamental issue of tax, there is a huge divide with the Lib Dems.
Charles Kennedy's farewell speech to the conference highlighted a wider void. Mr Kennedy's speech has been criticised in some quarters for failing to address the alcoholism that brought about his downfall. What did the critics expect? The country's apparent need for leaders to appear as if they are distraught guests on an Oprah Winfrey show suggests it is the country that is in need of collective therapy.
Wisely, Kennedy eschewed tearful confessions and spoke of his political values. He highlighted Europe as a particular passion. It is one that Sir Ming shares too. The Liberal Democrats are still the most pro-European of the political parties. They will not be able to sit around a cabinet table with members of a party that remains one of the most Eurosceptic in the EU.
In which case, what are the chances of a Lib/Lab government? In theory, there is more scope for common ground. Gordon Brown and Ming Campbell are old friends who meet up now and again. The Liberal Democrats' impressively forensic Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, also has some connections with Mr Brown. Although Mr Cable is critical of what he regards as Brown's excessive micromanagement of the economy, he gives the Chancellor high marks for his overall stewardship.
The internal tensions of the two parties are similar. Both Labour and the Lib Dems debate the degree to which they should worship at the altar of the marketplace. They agonise about appropriate balance between tax and public spending. Why not agonise in a new coalition after the next election, the embodiment of the much- vaunted progressive consensus?
Here is why it will not happen. Consider the context in which Labour and the Liberal Democrats would seek to hold hands. If there were a hung parliament, Labour would have lost a bucket-load of seats. There would be an air of crisis around the leadership of Gordon Brown. Almost certainly, a majority of voters in England would have voted Conservative, as they did at the last election. If Mr Brown and Sir Ming - two Scottish leaders - sought to do a deal in order to cling to power, the coalition would lack legitimacy from day one.
There is only one way in which a progressive consensus between the two parties would have credibility. They would need to move closer together in advance of an election. This would involve Brown indicating support for a change in the voting system and Sir Ming demonstrating - as Paddy Ashdown did in the build-up to the 1997 election - that he could work with a Labour government. This will not happen either.
Already, Mr Brown shows more concern to prove he will be more Blairite than Tony Blair. Even if Mr Brown sought to be more daring and distinctive in advance of the election, Mr Blair shows every intention of trapping the next leader on to his narrow agenda before he leaves. For the time being at least, Mr Brown looks more towards Rupert Murdoch and Middle England than the radical elements of a progressive consensus. For different reasons, Sir Ming is trapped too. In parts of the country the main battleground is between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. He must fight the battle.
This means that if there is a hung parliament, there will be a minority government formed alone by the largest single party. This is what happened in February 1974, the last time no party won an overall majority. Such a government would be extremely fragile. The overwhelming question in British politics would be how long it could survive. There will be no coalition.
Sir Ming, who has had a good week in Brighton, believes that a hung parliament is highly unlikely. I agree with him. So be warned. For the next few years, he - and we - will be talking about an electoral outcome that happens rarely in Britain and speculating about coalitions that will never be formed.Reuse content