Imagine that at the next General Election the Conservatives are the largest party, but 10 seats short of an overall majority. The Lib Dems get 15 seats. UKIP gets a few seats in Parliament – say a dozen. I suspect that David Cameron would prefer to have Nick Clegg than Nigel Farage as a coalition partner.
Will Conservative council leaders without an overall majority make the equivalent choice? Or would they find it more congenial to cut a deal with UKIP?
The few council results so far have already seen the Conservatives lose overall control in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire.
Yet the Labour Party only gained eight seats in Lincolnshire. They had lost 15 in 2009. So they are nowhere near back to 2005, which should be their basic measure of success. The Lib Dems actually lost a couple of seats and are down to just three.
What happened was UKIP, starting at nil, gained 16 seats. There are also 10 independents. The Conservatives, on 36, are only three short of an overall majority. A minority Conservative administration would be one possibility. That would seem more plausible than a UKIP/Lab/Lib Dem/Independent administration. A Conservative/Lib Dem coaliton would have just enough seats so that would be an option. But what about a Conservative/UKIP coalition? Coming together in the county's interest to cut Council Tax and banish red tape and political correctness?
In Gloucestershire the maths is more challenging for the Conservatives. They are the largest party with 23 – the same as the Lib Dems (14) and Labour (9) combined. But there are also three independents, three UKIP councillors and one for the Green Party. So even a Conservative/UKIP coalition wouldn't quite be a majority – there would need to be some support, or at least acquiescence, from an independent. A Lib Dem/Lab/UKIP/Green Party coalition would be a mathematical possibility but ideologically challenging.
But will UKIP want power if it is offered to them? It can only diminish their protest party credentials. They would have to take responsibility for controversial decisions – whether spending cuts or failing to cut spending enough and putting up Council Tax. If they "put the Conservatives in" with coalition deals they will be criticised – they will also be criticised if they "put in" anyone else or just create chaos.
Will the UKIP councillors be up to the job? It is one thing to make right wing noises in a pub or at a dinner party. It is another matter to be firm with the bureaucrats and get stuck into the detail when tough decisions have to be implemented.
Congratulations to all the Conservative councillors elected so far. Victory in Somerset was a particular achivement. The Conservatives have also kept control in Essex, Dorset, Hampshire and Hertfordshire.
I will be starting a live blog later this morning as more results come in.