Could Clegg stitch up his own party?

 

Lib Dems are biting their nails. Party activists, local councillors, and millions of committed voters are all very nervous. And here is why. Their MPs are talking to the Tories and they don’t like it.

Of course talking is fine. Nick Clegg promised to talk to the biggest party and has stuck to that promise. The horror for Lib Dem supporters is this. The talks should have failed by now. There should have been too little common ground to last this long. Instead the talks might now succeed.

This is an horrific thought for most Lib Dems. They genuinely didn’t believe Mandelson’s jibe that a vote for Clegg was a vote for Cameron. I didn’t believe it either, and I’m no Lib Dem.

While the Tories have moved to the centre ground, they are still a right wing party. They want a small state, less redistribution of wealth, and withdrawal from many aspects of the EU. Some of their MPs remain homophobes, pro-life, and want to bring back hanging and flogging.

The Lib Dems on the other hand are left wing. Their leaders pretend to transcend “old style” left-right politics. But that was always a lie and the voting masses largely know it. Their success in recent elections has been about keeping the Tories out where Labour can’t, or about attracting disaffected young Labour voters who hated the Iraq war and tuition fees.

All of that means any deal to support Cameron as Prime Minister could see Clegg’s party collapse. Many members and voters would simply vote for Labour next time to get the Tories out. Others would leave for the Greens who they trust never to betray their individual principles so utterly to the right. The party might take a generation to rebuild. Worse still the damage could be irreparable and it might just die.

And then there is electoral reform.

Electoral reform is perfect self interest for Lib Dems. They want a more proportional system so they can get more MPs elected. They also, by happy coincidence, genuinely believe that this would be fairer and so better for the country. So in return for that real change members might hold their noses and support the Tories.

But that is a fantasy option. Electoral reform is after all, also perfect self interest for Tories. They need First Past The Post to shut out small left wing parties so they can win elections. They also, by happy coincidence, genuinely believe FPTP makes for stronger government and so is better for the country.

That means that if a deal is to be done, Clegg has to be very clever, very cynical, and very devious. In other words he needs to be an old style politician, and a very good one at that.

First things first, the issue of electoral reform needs addressing. The Tories won’t offer real change. So the demand needs to be watered down. Then the importance of it needs diminishing in the eyes of Lib Dem supporters.

Clegg has already started this process. Lib Dem MPs have stopped talking of proportional representation and instead talk of electoral reform. That is now giving way to talk of wider political change. On top of that, the Lib Dems should talk more about higher priorities like the economy and environment. The press is doing this for them, but the Lib Dems have to do it themselves and do it a lot.

All of that paves the way for telling members they should think of the worthier aim of serving the country, than specific demands like electoral reform.

Then he would need some fig leaf. This is where he should jump at the chance of a special commission or something similar. He should extend it to wider political reform too. And he should talk it up as a great move in the right direction.

Obviously such a commission is a stitch up. It is a pleasantry that will resolve nothing to the Lib Dems’ satisfaction. That is why the Tories suggested it. But that doesn’t matter. It would enable Clegg to pretend in four years time that he was tricked by the Tories. He could argue that he didn’t sell them out, he was just naïve. It would be a lie, but hey, this is old style party politics at its most traditional. And it works.

A rose by any other name?

Because too few Lib Dems would buy into such an obvious con-trick as a commission for electoral reform, a formal coalition may be off the cards. Fortunately a coalition by any other name might smell less pungent.

Clegg should rule out a formal coalition. Instead he can agree to back a Tory minority government. The policy direction of that government would probably be just as abhorrent to his members, and he’d probably get less of what he wants too. But this isn’t about good governance. This is about party politics.

Supporting a minority Tory Government would be easier to spin. Certainly the lack of real political change would be easy to explain away. After all, the Lib Dems wouldn’t be to blame. The Government (Tories) would be.

Likewise Clegg might be able to convince his supporters that he only supports Tory policies that Lib Dems like. He would claim that the Tories hold off from their worst impulses if the know they need Lib Dem support in the Commons. Again, at best that would be an exaggeration and worse a bare-faced lie. But genuine accusations of the inevitable horse-trading might even rally his supporters rather than hurt him. Attacks from outside often do that.

And that is key. Any deal with the Tories would betray his support and everyone knows it. Most of all his supporters know it. Many will leave despite any tactical effort on his part. So he needs to help them pretend this is the least bad option. And they need to remain convinced, despite all the evidence, that their vote was not the vote for Cameron that Mandelson warned it would be.

If that is too hard, perhaps he can still walk away and deal with the rest of the Left. But don’t underestimate the role time plays. The longer the talks go on, the more Lib Dems will cease to be shocked. The more they will resign themselves to what may start to feel inevitable. And as that happens their desire to think well of their party and view their own vote positively will lead them to find their own mitigations and justifications for the betrayal.

Political climate change

America has been abuzz with talk of tea-party moments this week. Obama’s gloss has dulled and his party took a pasting on home turf. In England, maybe because we can’t stand to think of all that wasted tea, there are slower changes underway.  

In the last few years I can think of just one tea-party moment; one moment at which politics changed instantly. That moment was the cancelled election. Brown was popular and about to consolidate power with a snap election in which a divided opposition had little hope of success. Then he was weak and feeble and clinging to power until the newly united Tory party inevitably swept to power.

That has been the established climate for a couple of years now. The weather changes from day to day, but the backdrop has stayed constant.

Until recently.

Gordon Brown has been “winning” Prime Minister’s question time for a few months now. He has been more confident in public appearances. Highlighting how in touch the Tories aren’t has also helped a little. But all of that is superficial.

What has really changed is an atmosphere. Labour have changed, subtly and without announcement, from no-hopers to underdogs over the course of a few months.  

Part of that change is inevitable election upswing.  

Firstly pundits get nervous. Most political hacks can be summed up thus. They are politicians who lack the courage to face the scrutiny of a ballot box. Two years before an election they can declare the result with a certainty and pretend to be experts. No one will call them to task if they are wrong years later. With an election looming they get nervous. They edge their bets and muddy the waters so they sound expert but can’t be out and out wrong. So Labour are no longer dead in the water. Instead nothing is certain and “elections are unpredictable.”   

Secondly, the public start to care. People generally drift along with an all-knowing air of negativity. Those who argue that, for example, NHS waiting times have come down, sound endearingly naïve or awfully corrupt. But with an election coming the default setting shuts off. That waiting times have fallen becomes important. People weigh the good against the bad instead of just weighing the bad and ignoring the good. So inevitably that benefits the government.

This seasonal upturn for the Government would mean little normally. But Labour are capitalising. 

The attempted coup a couple of weeks ago fell about as flat as a coup could. It was led by two transparently bitter former ministers. It was backed by the usual gaggle of marginal misfits. Ministers who might be future leaders all backed Brown. Even those of us who love insider intrigue couldn’t sound convincing as we said this weakened the Prime Minister.

Likewise, pick up a paper and you’ll find talk of energy, Iraq and economic upturn. What you’ll see little of, surprisingly, is David Cameron’s latest policy announcement.

Campbell had a simple doctrine at the height of his powers. Stay in the news. Whether it was a new initiative, a response to some disaster, or being confronted by an angry voter at a hospital, he wanted the press to always look Labour’s way. 

That was a good strategy. It took the old adage that you don’t talk about your opponents – and extended it. It is no accident that since he re-entered the fray for Brown, Cameron has been relegated in column inch terms. Politics at the moment is focused on Iraq, energy, and the economy. And Labour are happy to keep things that way. The economy seems set for recovery, all be it a slow one. Iraq is long in the past and electorally of little importance. And energy is an area that Government can act on while the Tories are split about climate change. 

In short, Labour are the main story again. Campbell is clearly back in charge. 

And it is working. Snipes at the Tories are sticking, especially about their social status. That they are all rich and mostly born to money is now an accepted fact even if it isn’t quite true. That would mean little if their tax plans weren’t a list of hand outs to the super-rich. But they are.   

Likewise the Lib Dems are being used well. It is not uncommon now to see newspapers carry a Nick Clegg and a Labour story on the same double page spread with no mention of Cameron. Not so long ago Clegg was a story alongside Cameron while the Government was reported elsewhere. 

The change was signalled somewhat when Brown stated, with no mincing of words last weekend, that he wants a referendum on electoral reform. 

That is music to Lib Dem ears. And it is something the Tories could never offer them. In short, a hung Parliament would now almost certainly involve a Lib Dem and Labour pact, if only a short one to push a referendum. 

And that talk of hung parliaments is good for the underdog. It plays down expectations while playing up hope that no monumental defeat is coming. That is an improvement on six months ago. And it runs well alongside the edging of bets by newly cautious pundits. It raises spirits among Labour supporters. And it ensures wavering Lib Dems have a reason to vote against, not for the Tories. 

None of this will win Labour the next election . For what it’s worth, I still expect Cameron to enter number 10 in May. (no muddying of waters here). But it is good to see a fight being made of it. Labour led for years without opposition, and that can make for poor scrutiny. The Tories should not be so free for their five years in charge now.