Although the Liberal Democrats lost more seats than they gained at the last election, Nick Clegg’s position as their leader was never in doubt after it ended. The hung Parliament that his party had been waiting for since the late 1970s had finally arrived. The aftershock of his TV debate success was still reverberating. He had taken his party to the brink of government.
The wake of the coming election looks to be very different – for the simple reason that the Liberal Democrats are likely to lose a significant slice of their seats. Our columnist Stephen Tall, the contributing editor of LibDem Voice, predicts that the number will fall from 57 to 32 – in short, that about half their seats will fall.
What would Clegg’s position be in the aftermath of such a result?
At best, he would be a lame duck. It is very hard to believe that a leader who had presided over a loss on this scale could stay as party leader for very long. Were David Cameron or Ed Miliband to seek to hold negotiations with the Liberal Democrat leader over a coalition, both would ask themselves (and be asked by their respective parties): how long could Clegg realistically serve in government? Will any coalition not be likely to collapse after his departure? Will it really be endorsed by his party in the first place? So therefore – given the fragility of this position – isn’t the prospect of a stable coalition with the Liberal Democrats remote?
In such circumstances, minority government might well look more attractive than coalition with the Liberal Democrats – especially if the combined number of both parties’ MPs adds up to a small majority, and both the Labour and Conservative Parliamentary parties are resistant to coalition with Clegg’s party.
And all that is the sunny-side up view of Clegg’s position after such a result.
At worst, he would be a dead parrot. Liberal Democrat MPs might demand that he quit immediately – especially the ones that lean to Labour, since Miliband has said at times that a condition of a Lab/Lib coalition is Clegg’s departure from government. The party’s MPs would then presumably elect an acting leader. Were this person – let us call him Tim Farron – to seek to enter negotiations with either Cameron or Miliband, both would surely ask: what will happen if we form a coalition, and Farron doesn’t then win the Liberal Democrats’ leadership election? Will any coalition really be endorsed by his party in the first place?…(And so on.)
The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that, either way, the formation of a coalition between either of the main parties and the Liberal Democrats is less likely in 2015 than it was in 2010.
I’m currently reading Rob Wilson’s account of the formation of the coalition (Five Days to Power), and note than in it he writes that the Institute for Government “was used as the cover for Civil Service activity and preparation”, including a seminar held at Ditchley Park in 2009 with academics, civil servants and politicians in attendance.
The Institute is currently undertaking a big project on minority government. You can read Peter Riddell’s penetrating ConHome article about how it might work here.