John Rentoul: Clegg's right to cosy up to Cameron

But the Lib Dem leader has boxed himself into a poor bargaining position – and earned the ire of the left's wishful thinkers

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:53

There is a lot of wishful thinking on the left about a progressive coalition that won 52 per cent of the vote in the election. Labour's 29 per cent plus the Liberal Democrats' 23 per cent outvotes the reactionary fox-hunting sceptic Tories with their measly 36 per cent. QED. Surely that nice liberal Nick Clegg with a Spanish wife can see that? So what's all this cosying up to David Cameron, then? As one Lib Dem activist said on Friday, it is "like a twist in a film when you realise one of the heroes is the bad guy".

I can understand why Labour cabinet ministers might want to push that story. Ed Miliband, the Energy Secretary, said at some point early on Friday morning: "People have voted in their majority for reform of the voting system." But it is an argument that flies about as well as Nigel Farage's plane. You might as well say that 59 per cent of the electorate voted to oppose the third runway at Heathrow, which is Conservative and Lib Dem policy. And most voters probably feel more strongly about runways than they do about electoral reform.

Indeed, there is so much muddled thinking on the subject of the voting system that one hardly knows where to begin. So let us start with Willie Sullivan, of Vote for a Change, who issued a press release while Cameron was addressing the nation about his "big, open and comprehensive offer" to the Lib Dems. "Right now, David Cameron is on all the news channels, announcing how he's planning to form a government... his Conservatives having secured only 36 per cent of the vote nationwide," wrote Sullivan. "It's outrageous. But it's not surprising, is it? This is what our broken system produces: broken elections."

Not usually, actually. Our "broken" system usually produces decisive election results, such as Tony Blair's majority of 66 five years ago, won on 36 per cent of the vote. Anyone who supports PR, which is the purpose of Sullivan's campaign, ought to celebrate the result. Cameron, having won a minority of the vote, is forced to negotiate to put together a government that secures the consent of parties representing a majority. But blinkered thinkers see only a progressive coalition as representing the will of the people; they shut themselves off from the possibility that a centre-right coalition is its more popular or more authentic expression.

The anti-Labour coalition is larger than the anti-Tory one, which is why Clegg is right to lean towards Cameron. I think he was foolish to have said before the election that if a party won most votes and most seats it would have a "moral right" or "moral mandate" to seek to form a government. I do not disagree with him, but I think it was tactically inept because it weakened his bargaining power. And leverage, front and moral authority are what matter in the negotiations between parties that supporters of proportional representation want to see as a permanent feature of our politics. It is surprising that someone who aspires to permanent coalition government should so constrain himself.

Because Clegg has accepted Cameron's mandate, the Conservatives think they can drive a harder bargain. The outcome is likely to be the same, but the price will be cheaper. Cameron will still be prime minister. And he set out the likely basis in his televised statement on Friday. As if reprising one of his PPE tutorials with Professor Vernon Bogdanor at Oxford, he spoke of "a confidence and supply arrangement". This would mean that the Lib Dems would agree to abstain on the Queen's Speech and George Osborne's Budget in return for promises to do or not to do certain things. That is what is most likely to happen.

But Cameron said he wanted a "stronger, more stable, more collaborative government than that". That is how you play these kinds of negotiations. The balance of forces is such that Cameron would have to behave most unreasonably to give Clegg the chance to throw down his papers and say, "Right, that's it; we're off to negotiate with Peter Mandelson." So the Tory leader is being utterly reasonable, offering a pact, or what he called "a common plan". Which is, I suspect, more than the Lib Dem party will bear, given that the Tories will not give ground on electoral reform. The most that is likely to emerge from Cameron's offer of a committee of inquiry on the issue is the promise of PR for an elected House of Lords.

So Clegg will emerge, possibly tomorrow, saying that he has extracted more than he ever dreamed possible for his party, but the Tories won't change the voting system so a deal is not possible. It will be a deal, and not a deal. Which will suit everyone. Clegg will accept Cameron's right to be prime minister, and will claim to have deferred public spending cuts for six months and secured tax breaks for the low paid (for example), while maintaining some of the purity of opposition. Such a deal would even suit the Labour Party. During the campaign it faced what the posh commentators call an "existential crisis", meaning that if it had come third in votes it might have been on a slope to extinction. Instead it has a solid base from which it could, after an early leadership contest and a serious effort of renewal, mount a realistic challenge in a second election in a year's time.

The prospects of a rival rainbow coalition, of Labour, Lib Dems, Caroline Lucas, Northern Irish and Nationalists, are poor. Arithmetically, it has as much legitimacy as a Con-Lib arrangement, but to stitch together a coalition based on two parties that lost seats on the single issue of electoral reform would look horrible and any referendum to change the voting system would surely be lost. Electoral reformers are berating Clegg for missing his "once-in-a-generation opportunity" of which he spoke so messianically before polling day, but – even if he had not boxed himself in with his doctrine of the moral mandate – the voters did not deal him a hand that he could have played.

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