Heeding my advice is no hanging offence

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Unlike some of my colleagues, I have never been much of a one for offering free advice to politicians: in conversation, that is, rather than in a column. Very occasionally, it is true, they ask for it. Many years ago, Jim Callaghan asked for my views on hanging. It was, I seem to remember, something to do with categories of murder. I replied it was a bad business and that a Labour government should have nothing to do with it. After I had been proceeding along these lines for some minutes, the then Home Secretary interrupted with his usual cheerful brutality. He was not, he said, remotely interested in my own views on the subject. What he was interested in - and what he had asked me about - was the state of public opinion. We moved on to other matters.

But at the last Liberal Democrat conference I departed from my normal practice and offered Mr Charles Kennedy a piece of advice. He politely agreed with it; though, as we shall see, he has not managed to adhere to it completely. The advice was that, whatever the temptations - however inviting the prospect of speculation might appear - he should resolutely refuse to talk about what his party would do in the event of a hung Parliament.

The phrase is not, I confess, among my favourites. It was introduced into political discourse in the early 1970s by The Economist, and it derived from the hung jury, a United States usage. It means a Parliament in which no party holds an absolute majority.

The condition is not as uncommon as we perhaps like to think. Since the First World War it has obtained in 1924, in 1929-31, in February-October 1974, for most of the Parliament of October 1974-79 and for the last period of the Parliament of 1992-97. It is accordingly a state of affairs of which we have recent experience.

The circumstances of the 1970s naturally influenced political talk after Margaret Thatcher came to power with a workable but modest majority. She was unpopular; the Falklands War had yet to be won; an alliance was formed of the Liberals and the new Social Democrats. Both parties retained their separate leaders, of whom Roy Jenkins was leader of the SDP. At the 1983 election, Jenkins was nominated "Prime Minister designate".

The title aroused some mirth because of its solemnity, even pomposity. Yet it was not wholly unreasonable to tell the voters who would be, not perhaps Prime Minister, but the politician who would be conducting the negotiations if the Conservatives failed to secure an absolute majority, as had been expected at the very beginning of the decade.

In the event, Mrs Thatcher won with a thumping majority of 144, and all bets were off. But the odd thing is that, as the decade went on, with no prospect of shifting the Tories, the talk proceeded as merrily as ever. David Owen (who succeeded Jenkins) was always prepared to oblige with a lengthy quotation about his attitude towards the other two parties. And if Lord Owen, as he later became, could not contrive to contradict himself, as he usually did, why, there was always David Steel, who was virtually guaranteed to say something different from what his ostensible ally had outlined previously.

But the speculations of the two Davids were as nothing - as a Trappist monastery to a Cardiff pub - compared to what came afterwards, the Herculean exertions of the spirit demonstrated by Paddy Ashdown. By the way, he was elected leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats, whose short title was supposed to be the Democrats, not the Liberal Democrats. It only goes to show that, as with the community charge and the poll tax, you cannot impose usage. Lord Ashdown's finest hour, if you can call it that, came when Mr Tony Blair thought he might need Liberal Democrat help after the election.

The theory of relativity is much in the news or, at any rate, on the television and in the feature-pages. Mr Blair is a master of what may be called political relativity. It joins together two concepts: what is going to happen and what he hopes - or says he hopes - is going to happen. It has an original attitude towards time also. If you asked Mr Blair the time, he would reply: what time would you like it to be?

After 1997 Lord Ashdown resembled one of those young women about whom we now read so much: who wonder why it is that the object of their affections has not returned the call. Is he afraid of appearing too keen? Or perhaps he is working too hard? Her friends tell her that she is marvellous. But the truth is that he has found somebody else. Likewise with Mr Blair. He too had found somebody else or, rather, 179 somebody elses, who made up his majority.

Poor Paddy could not understand why the handsome Tony had no further use for him. But, ever the hopeful lover, he hung on. When Mr Kennedy succeeded him, I advised the new leader to have as little as possible to do with Mr Blair, who used people and then discarded them. This was in a column, and it was contrary to the advice which most people were offering him.

In a letter to The Guardian of 21 January, Mr Kennedy wrote: "We will put forward our own policies for government and we would not prop up an unpopular Labour administration which had lost a three-figure majority. But I am equally clear that there is no question of joining forces with the Conservatives. There is little in their ... platform which I agree with, and there is an irrevocable divide between us on ... Europe."

A correspondent then suggested that Mr Kennedy should offer Labour support in return for electoral reform. Mr Kennedy replied on 26 January: "If there is a hung Parliament after the next election - an unusual outcome - it would mean that Labour had squandered a three-figure majority. That would represent a huge loss of confidence in a Blair administration ... we ... would let ourselves down if we were to chase deals for party advantage."

So perhaps I was unfair to Mr Kennedy at the beginning in saying that he had failed to adhere to my advice. In any case, he does not foresee - or says he does not foresee - the Liberal Democrats as holding any balance of power. The only observers who are prepared to contemplate the possibility seem to be Professor John Curtice in The Independent, Lord Rees-Mogg in The Times and myself in this paper.

Mr Kennedy and I clearly disagree about the meaning of "unusual". But if what he calls unusual comes about, he will have to make a choice, as Lord Steel chose Labour in 1977-78, to no very obvious benefit, as things turned out. For the moment, he is wise not to tie himself into the woolly cardigans which Lords Ashdown, Owen and Steel knitted for themselves.