Should Clegg cuddle up with Gordon Brown?

Via Twitter, Tom Griffin alerts me to an article by Philip Stevens claiming that by ruling out supporting Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg has thrown away his negotiating position for forming a reforming coalition government with the Labour Party. There are only two problems with this article: Stevens clearly has no idea how the UK constitution (such as it is) works, and clearly has not listened to anything Nick Clegg has actually said on the subject.

Before I continue this article, a caveat. It is speculates what might happen if we find ourselves in a hung parliament situation on 7 May. I’m not predicting this will happen; I have no idea what will happen. What I am seeking to clarify are what the Lib Dems’ options actually are in such a situation.

In terms of the latter, Clegg has been quite clear: the party with the biggest mandate should have the first chance to form a government. Contrary to any cheese-induced dreams Stevens may have had recently, he has explicitly not stated that the Lib Dems would automatically support the party with the biggest mandate, nor has he defined “biggest mandate”. The latter is crucial because even now we have no idea if the party with the most seats in the Commons will have the largest share of the vote. Defining “mandate” will inevitably be a judgement call based on numerous factors.

Secondly, he appears to be under the impression that if Brown is ousted, then the Queen will automatically approach Cameron to form a government and that if Cameron is defeated then a General Election will automatically be called. Both these assertions are completely incorrect. Before writing his article, Stevens should have spent a few minutes studying the briefing note the Cabinet Office prepared back in February which explains exactly what will happen (pdf). It states that:

When a Government or Prime Minister resigns it is for the Monarch to invite the person whom it appears is most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government. However it is the responsibility of those involved in the political process – and in particular the parties represented in Parliament – to seek to determine and communicate clearly who that person should be. These are the principles that underpin the appointment of a Prime Minister and formation of a government in all circumstances.

Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, the expectation is that discussions will take place between political parties on who should form the next Government.

What this means is that if Cameron cannot form a majority without the Lib Dems’ help, and is not prepared to make some pretty major concessions to the Lib Dems (if you aren’t aware already, those demands are the four key Lib Dem manifesto commitments for a fairer tax system, education, a fair and green economy and a fairer politics), then as long as Labour are prepared to make such concessions there is no reason at all for the Queen to even ask Cameron to form a government*. Furthermore, the Queen is obliged to listen to the Liberal Democrats (and others, for that matter) before making a decision, not merely talk to the main two parties. And even if Cameron does get as far as a Queens’ Speech, which falls, fresh elections will not be automatic:

A Prime Minister may request that the Monarch dissolves Parliament and hold a further election. The Monarch is not bound to accept such a request, especially when such a request is made soon after a previous dissolution. In those circumstances, the Monarch would normally wish the parties to ascertain that there was no potential government that could command the confidence of the House of Commons before granting a dissolution.

Tom raises the spectre of 1974 when the Queen ordered fresh elections despite the reassurances of Harold Wilson that he could form a government. But one of the few things we do know is that 2010 will not lead to a repeat of the ’74 parliament whereby a coalition government combining the Liberals and either the Conservatives or Labour was not really viable. The Liberals had 14 MPs and no negotiating position – they didn’t have enough people to even have a significant Cabinet presence. In 2010 by contract, the Lib Dems could have anything between 60 and 120 MPs and thus hold a very decisive balance of power. If the Queen were to call fresh elections despite Labour and the Lib Dems requesting to form a coalition government with a clear majority, the only thing she would achieve would be to make her own future an election issue.

The question boils down then, not to what Clegg would do but how the Labour Party will respond. How quickly will they be able to recover from the affront that Clegg won’t prop up Brown (a leader who, it has been clear from the last couple of years, most of them regret coronating in the first place) and start looking at alternatives? Or would they rather have a Tory administration just to spite the Lib Dems? That certainly appears to be Gordon Brown’s own current position (I was amused to read John Harris describe Brown adopting a scorched earth policy – that’s exactly how I had described it five minutes before reading his article). My prediction is that once the dust has settled, cooler Labour heads will prevail and they will start talking.

If they think they can still brass neck it and blackmail the Lib Dems into backing them, they need to remember three things. Firstly, any attempt to prop up Gordon Brown would be seen by the public as an utter betrayal of Clegg’s rallying call for real change – he would be finished. Secondly, assuming the Tories win the most seats (and Labour would have to move mountains to change this at this stage), the Lib Dems don’t need to actually vote for a Cameron administration but merely abstain (and such a Cameron government would still be hamstrung by having to negotiate everything with Parliament). And third, we’ve been waiting a lot longer for this moment than Labour has, and have a lot less to lose.

So spare us the threats and the “our way or the highway” posturing. That way lies oblivion. And Mr Stevens, perhaps you ought to do a bit more research in future?

* This is a fact that Cameron himself may like to appraise himself of, if the report in the Telegraph of Cameron ruling out talks with the Lib Dems are true. If that’s the case Dave, you can kiss the keys to Number 10 goodbye.


  1. I’ve since noticed more stories by Peter Kellner and John Rentoul making similar points over the last couple of days. Maybe there is some Labour briefing behind it, but Kellner makes the point about 1974:

    Edward Heath resigned as prime minister when he failed to strike a coalition deal with the Liberals. Labour’s Harold Wilson returned as PM, and received an assurance from Buckingham Palace that, were he to be defeated on his Queen’s Speech, he could be granted an immediate dissolution and a second election just weeks after the first. This prospect terrified the Tories and Liberals. Fearing that voters would crucify them for their irresponsibility, they abstained and Wilson enjoyed one of the largest majorities ever for any Queen’s Speech.

    Wilson went on to call a second election later in the year which Labour (just about) won. My worry is that this scenario could play out for Cameron.

    There will probably be pressure from Brown to go from within Labour, but if he resigns under circumstances where there is no agreed Lib-Lab successor, then Cameron will have a strong claim to the Premiership. Once in office he will be in a stronger position to seek a dissolution than Labour would be.

    That said, maybe there is some Labour spin in this scenario. I wouldn’t expect Lib Dems to talk down their own room for manouevre, but it bears thinking about.

  2. As Brown is peddling the familar Labour scare “a Liberal vote will let in the Conservatives” more vigourously than ever we must assume Labour’s canvassers are not reporting good news.

    Of course Nick Clegg could not prop up Brown a Prime Minister who even dyed in the wool Labour voters will be glad to see the back of.

    We could of course hope that leaders of a Con Lib coalition would have the vision to invite Alan Johnson or Alistair Darling to be part of the ruling group should either secure the Labour leadership.

    If somebody else becomes Labour leaders, Balls or a Milliban for example then Labour will not be relevant.

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  3. James, I think the Liberal Democrats really should, in principle, define the biggest mandate as the greatest number of votes, given their general position when it comes to electoral reform. I understand why they don’t, but I think that’s a slightly cynical decision in their own self-interest rather than something they have to do.

  4. David, the trouble with that is that voters aren’t really making a free choice here – many will be voting tactically for whichever party in their constituency that happens to be able to win is the least objectionable to them. So Party A getting 1% more votes than Party B isn’t necessarily very convincing evidence of a mandate.

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