Over the weekend we began to see the shape of a possible deal between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, while Gordon Brown simmered and stewed inside 10 Downing Street. David Cameron has taken a very shrewd and responsible position, showing that he is prepared to compromise in order to form a stable government for the good of the country. This has not endeared him to every back-bench Conservative MP but he has displayed a deftness of touch that occasionally eluded him during the General Election campaign.
Nick Clegg has similarly stuck to what he promised during the campaign and had serious discussions with the party that won the most votes and seats – the Conservatives. This has clearly not been popular with some of his MPs such as Simon Hughes and the Guardian has run articles calling for an alternative alliance with Labour plus a collection of minor parties.
Today every assumption has once again been thrown up in the air with the announcement that Gordon Brown is to stand down as Labour party leader and the consequential start of serious discussions between Labour and the Lib Dems about an alliance. This will probably have delighted and annoyed precisely the opposite set of Lib Dem MPs that would have been annoyed and delighted about a Conservative tie up.
It is my view that the Conservatives are now in a win/win position and the Lib Dems in a potential lose/lose position. If the Lib Dems do back the Conservatives to form a government they will have a group of MPs who are deeply unhappy with the pact and some may be seduced to cross the floor to Labour. However, they would have the chance to implement some of their cherished policies and gain the aura of a party with a taste of national power. They would almost certainly not get their totem policy of Proportional Representation (PR) for the electoral system. In due course the Conservatives would request a second General Election and hope to be able to govern without Lib Dem support.
If the Lib Dems do throw their lot in with Labour for the promise of PR, they do not have the numbers to form a stable government (even with the Nationalists and Green on board) and will also almost certainly fail to achieve PR. Lib Dems would be seen as propping up a Labour Party that had been rejected at the polls and would lose popularity as a result. When the “rainbow coalition” collapsed, as it surely would after a short span of time, the resulting General Election would deliver a landslide Conservative majority. They might even lose a few MPs to the Conservatives – probably the same MPs that were known to have been in discussions with the party when Charles Kennedy was still leader.
The Conservative leadership should therefore continue to seek a stable and lasting agreement with the Lib Dems without giving away too much. If they succeed in the discussions, then the Conservatives would form a Government with some Lib Dems in the Cabinet. If the discussions break down and there is a “rainbow coalition” then the Conservatives can sit back in Opposition for a short time and watch the other two parties implode.
I stress that my personal preference, for the good of the country, would be an arrangement (formal coalition or less formal) that delivers a Government that can implement the decisions needed to sort out the economic mess that Labour has left behind. However, if the Lib Dems go for the superficial self-interested option they could end up sowing the seeds of their own destruction. Either way the Conservative Party gains – but one way the country loses!