It is fair to say that Nick Clegg is not quite where he intended to be, the dream of 100+ seats is, for now, just that. There is no doubt that the failure to realise the potential of the early polls will impact on his negotiating position. However, whatever he might of said on the steps of Lib-Dem HQ the fact remains that neither Labour or the Tories can govern without him; he is still the kingmaker and he knows it. The next 48hours will be the toughest of his leadership and could well make or break the party for a generation. Get it right and proportional representation and the hard wiring of a genuine three-party system in Westminster follows. Get it wrong and the Lib-Dems risk being split right down the middle and ceasing to be any kind of force in British politics for a generation.
I am a recent convert to the Lib-Dem cause. Their manifesto really resonated with me – particularly their focus on fairness. But right at the heart of my support is their passionate campaigning for meaningful electoral reform. As I have written in previous posts – it seems to me that unless you get this right you haven’t a hope on any of the other major challenges facing the country. And it is this that has to be Nick Clegg’s price for co-operation.
I have never been shy about suggesting my ideal in this election was a hung parliament, delivering a workable Lib-Lab coalition that could make real progress on electoral reform and finally lock out the damaging forces of conservatism. It is still possible that this might happen and, until it can’t be done it will always be my preferred option. That said, I respect Nick Clegg’s decision to stick to what he said in the campaign and publicly state that the party with the biggest share of the votes and the largest number of seats should have the right to try and form a government first. Him talking to the Tories first is not a betrayal of his party, it is a reinforcement of his values and a reminder of his strength as a leader.
Talking to the Tories is one thing, agreeing to support, or even join them in government is quite another. Whatever David Cameron suggested earlier today about common-ground between the parties, there is just too much of a gap in both policies and values for any meaningful coalition to take place. I know I would not be the only one to find it very difficult to support a party working alongside the Tories. There is one exception to this however: If Nick Clegg could negotiate commitment to a referendum on proportional representation followed by a 2nd general election all within an 18month time period then I could support the Lib-Dems working as part of a national stability government with the Tories. But it has to be this, any compromise from the central goal of electoral reform cannot be countenanced.
If, as I suspect is the case, Cameron is not willing to offer this then the only thing for Clegg to do is to work with the Labour Party (minus a certain Gordon Brown) and the nationalists to deliver exactly the same, probably within a shorter timescale. Doing nothing is not an option – letting a new government collapse and forcing a snap 2nd election will only weaken their hand with the country taking the decision in their own hands and almost definitely delivering a working Tory majority. Once this has happened so has his chance for any meaningful reform.
This is a huge 48 hours for Nick Clegg and for the future of politics in the UK – I am supporting him all the way in his negotiations, I just hope that he can deliver.