Since this article was published yesterday, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced that he plans to resign as leader of the Labour Party, probably by September, improving Labour’s chances of gaining the support of the Liberal Democrats to form government.
The part played by voters in picking the UK’s next government went largely as predicted, delivering a hung parliament in which the Tories are the single largest party. It’s now up to the parties to negotiate their way through the mess that the increasingly discredited UK electoral system finds itself in. It’s a mess that involves particularly high personal stakes for the three major party leaders, all of whom face an array of unpleasant options.
Gordon Brown may be staying put for now, but his premiership is likely to last just days, if not hours. Even if Labour manages to secure a "multi-coloured" alliance with the Liberal Democrats, Brown’s head is the price to be paid (not without certain glee in Labour ranks, it must be said).
As for Nick Clegg, the alternatives on offer are particularly fraught. Kingmaker he may be, but the choice he faces is a bit like choosing which leg he’d rather have amputated. Support the Tories and he ensures retaliation from the primarily Left-leaning Lib Dem base at the next election; prop up Labour in exchange for a better deal on voting reform and he faces intense attacks from the right-wing media and Tory leadership. Regardless of which way he jumps, he faces the unpalatable certainty of being implicated in any drastic deficit-reducing cuts. After their relentless campaign rhetoric on "coming clean" about the true state of the country’s finances, Clegg and finance spokesman Vince Cable would find it impossible to credibly oppose such measures.
Yet in the melee, none of the leaders will have overlooked one particularly ugly problem. Despite efforts by each party to make their coalition options sound credible by stressing points of policy agreement with their suitors, any conceivable coalition will almost certainly prove unstable, tasked as it will be with pushing through unpopular spending cuts. The resulting electoral backlash at the next election is unlikely to be sympathetic.
In part, this must surely be influencing David Cameron’s "take it or leave it" offer on electoral reform. Better, surely, to avoid conceding too much, and if necessary leave a Lab-Lib-"others" coalition to fall apart under its own stress — and then to clean up at the resulting early election?
Yet this scenario fails to acknowledge one crucial factor: the Conservative leader’s desperate need to deliver. Regardless of all the brazen talk of going it alone in a minority government, if the Tories cannot secure a deal with the Lib Dems, their best chance of securing the keys to Number 10 will disappear — particularly if momentum gathers around a "progressive alliance" committed to electoral reform.
For Cameron, this is surely a worrying prospect. Having effectively rubbished a raft of previously cherished Conservative policies in an effort to "detoxify" themselves, Cameron’s failure to bring his party with him leaves him vulnerable, as Saturday’s Times made clear:
"But anger at the failure of the Tories’ campaign, an effort tightly controlled by the leadership, is bubbling dangerously close to the surface. The unpalatable truth, say critics, is that for decades the most well-funded, professionally organised and disciplined Tory campaign has come up short. Disaffected MPs have identified two early scapegoats: Andy Coulson and [Steve] Hilton.
"[…] Behind-the-scenes anecdotes are starting to emerge. One records how Bill Knapp, the US political consultant hired to help Mr Cameron, had a simple question on the eve of the vital second television debate. What research had been done into what voters thought of the Tory campaign’s key theme of the Big Society? The answer was an embarrassed silence. When results from a hurriedly convened focus group detailed a negative reaction at a subsequent meeting, Mr Hilton is said to have stormed out."
Where all this leaves Cameron is unclear. At the time of writing significant elements of the Tory hierarchy and the backbenches are opposed to an alliance with the Lib Dems, and it is difficult to imagine the Conservatives making a meaningful concession on electoral reform — yet current indications are that this is precisely what will be required if the threat of a Lib-Lab alliance is to be headed off. Should a Lib-Lab pact be formed — with the ensuing threat of an early election at any point — he may breathe slightly easier in the knowledge a direct leadership challenge would be too risky for his rivals within the party to contemplate (despite the sound of knives being sharpened).
Cameron is by no means the only one located between the devil and the deep blue sea — for Clegg, too, the stakes are enormous. For the Liberal Democrats as a whole, winning a concession on electoral reform is critical. The Tories’ strong opposition to proportional representation pushes Clegg towards a deal with Labour that the Right will easily portray as the propping-up of a tired and rejected government, presumably to be led by a new Labour leader who played no part in the election debates.
For the Lib Dems, a deal on electoral reform will secure their long-term relevance — but the reality of doing a deal with Labour could fatally undermine Clegg’s leadership. Whether he picks the new government by entering a formal coalition, or just by promising not to bring it down, Clegg must make a deal which will decide which other party governs the country, while he himself will be left only a small share in that power. It is very difficult to see how he can emerge from this process with his reputation enhanced.
It is only a matter of time before Brown is asked to act (as the saying goes) "for the good of the party". The real question is: what will be the tactics of his successor, and what will Clegg and Cameron do? Now, as pressure from the media, the electorate and the Greek financial crisis has apparently led the Lib Dems to set themselves a 24-hour deadline to reach a deal, it looks like it won’t be long before we find out.
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