A secret Lib-Lab plot?

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So claims Peter Oborne, something which appears to have got the Tories into a right tizzy. Stephen Tall at Lib Dem Voice has debunked most of it so I will try to avoid repeating what he has said. It should also be pointed out that Clegg in particular has been linked to rumours (also by rightwing commentators) of planning a coalition with Cameron at various stages over the past couple of years. The idea that Vince Cable has suddenly become Gordon Brown’s “poodle” because, um, Gordon Brown has finally started agreeing with Vince is ridiculous – is he really supposed to start disagreeing with his own policies once Labour adopts them? Lead by Cable and Clegg, the Lib Dems have recently worked with the Tories to force a vote on the VAT cut – a fact conveniently not mentioned by Oborne.

The Lib Dems’ opponents like to think the party is just itching to jump into bed with whichever party pulls back its duvet. The reality is somewhat more complicated. The party embarked into a near civil war at the end of the nineties when two distinct schools of thought emerged: one that the party should strengthen its ties with Labour and eventually merge (the Ashdown option) and one that the party needed to regain its independence and walk out of the Joint Cabinet Committee it sat on to oversee the constitutional reform agenda (a joint agenda post-1997 following the Cook-Maclennan Agreement). The latter school won. Yet at almost the same time we were in government with Labour in Scotland and about to enter a partnership government in Wales. Fast forward to 2007, and the Lib Dems walked away from coalition in both Scotland and Wales, the latter subtly (and sometimes not-so subtly) framing the recent leadership election between Kirsty Williams and Jenny Randerson.

For a third party, coalition is an opportunity to get your hands on real power, but it is also liable to blow up in your face. Look at what’s happened to the FDP in Germany (more controversially perhaps, I would argue it has happened to the Scottish Lib Dems, going by the opinion polls, the fact that they are on their third leader in three years and personal anecdote – it remains to be seen if Tavish Scott will get them back on track). And in recent history, every time we’ve had to seriously consider coalition, we have been well aware of this fact. That’s part of the reason why it is the one issue liable to split the party down the middle; as a party which tends to resolve its policy disputes by debate and voting, we can pretty much weather anything else.

So when Oborne starts doing his 2+2=5 calculations, you have to factor that in. You have to consider it in relation to the late nineties – a far more fertile period of Lib-Lab cooperation – which failed to result in coalition. Nonetheless, with the Tories the strongest they have been in fifteen years and the clear realisation that their current economic policies (such as they are) would be ruinous to the country, you can see why there is at least a temptation to think about formalising the two parties’ relationship once again.

The clearest stumbling block to a coalition however is Labour’s continual attack on civil liberties. The Lib Dems would lose their reputation as civil libertarians for all time if they entered a coalition with the party of identity cards and the database state. Unless Labour were to recant all these policies (which a number of its own backbenchers would have a thing or two to say about it – they aren’t all called Bob Marshall-Andrews you know), Clegg would have to be suicidal to contemplate it: a new, authentically liberal party – with at least a dozen MPs – would have formed before the ink on the agreement had even dried. As readers may have noticed, I have a tendency to be a bit down on Clegg so you might think I’d want a reassurance that this won’t happen – but it is so far in the realm of fantasy that I think I’d make myself look silly even demanding it.

The bottom line is, we no longer live in a political age where a few people in a Commons tea room can decide to enter a coalition. It is an area that any party leader treads very carefully in. Even if we found ourselves in a no-overall control situation after the general election, I don’t see the Lib Dems agreeing to anything more than providing confidence-and-supply to the party which won the plurality (this was bizarrely dismissed by Clegg in 2008 back when it was cooperation with Cameron that was the rightwing press’ “dead cert”, but then he does a lot of bizarre things – it was Kennedy’s stated policy in 2005).

One thing I will confidently predict is that in 2009 we will have at least one major “revelation” that, in fact, Clegg is in secret talks about a coalition with Cameron. Until Clegg makes his equivalent of the Chard Speech, I won’t be putting much faith into either spin.

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