Comment: The Lib Dems can’t work with Cameron

No matter what he says, Nick Clegg’s relationship with David Cameron would fall apart within months of a hung parliament

By Matthew West

In the past week Lord Adonis has appeared to take a certain amount of pleasure in winding up the Liberal Democrats. Last week, in the Independent he encouraged Lib Dem voters in constituencies where they have little hope of winning to vote Labour in order to keep the Conservatives out.

Yesterday he called for Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg to be honest with the public about the chances of a Lib-Lab coalition government versus a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government.

Meanwhile, the prime minister, talking to politics.co.uk last week, appeared to back the comments of his business secretary, Lord Mandelson, who called for non-Tory voters to vote Lib Dem in constituencies where it was a straight fight between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. “I don’t think we want a Conservative government let’s be honest about that,” he said.

Nick Clegg has remained fairly consistent in his approach to awkward questions about which party the Lib Dems would work with in the event of a hung parliament.

He has suggested that just because the prime minister, by constitutional convention, has the right to try to form a government in the event of a hung parliament doesn’t mean he should. He has stated that the Lib Dems would work with the party that in his view had the moral right to govern. In other words, as he confirmed at the launch of the party’s manifesto yesterday, in the event of a hung parliament he would negotiate with the party which won the most votes and the most seats at the election to form a coalition government.

It’s still not a discussion the Lib Dem leader wants to have however because he is out to win as many votes for his party as possible.

And while there is no suggestion that he would be forced to stand down by his party if he didn’t secure at least as many seats in the House of Commons as the party won in the 2005 election, Mr Clegg knows that his credibility as leader of his party rests on his ability to increase the share of the vote the Lib Dems achieve in this election.

One of the reasons that Lord Adonis’ comments have irked the Lib Dem leadership so much is because they fear being tainted by association with the potentially toxic brand that is the Labour party.

The Conservatives will make much of the fact that Labour and the Lib Dems have much in common in constituencies where they are fighting the third party. Most notably in the south and south west of England where some Lib Dem MPs, including home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne, are holding onto their seats with very slim majorities and are therefore vulnerable.

But Lord Adonis has a point. There is not as great a difference between Labour and the Liberal Democrats as Nick Clegg would like voters to think. Many members of his own party, certainly ones that I have spoken to in the past, are old Labour party members who left Labour during the Blair years either through opposition to the Iraq War or because they felt the party moved too far to the right.

It’s also worth remembering that the modern Liberal Democrat party was formed by the Alliance of the Liberal party with the Social Democats in the 1980s – hence the name.

Moreover, it is fairly common to see one or two Labour MPs at Lib Dem party conferences, former home secretary Charles Clarke and current government minister David Lammy have both been recent speakers at Lib Dem conference fringe meetings. In those meetings the common enemy is always the Conservative party as the enemy of progressive politics. Labour and the Lib Dems certainly in private, or at least when there isn’t an election to fight, agree that they both have traditions steeped in progressive politics and while they disagree on much, they agree on a great deal more.

Is it therefore realistic to expect the Lib Dems to form a coalition government with the Conservatives should we end up with a hung parliament on May 7th? No, not really. Whatever Mr Clegg says about a moral right to govern he couldn’t bring his party with him into a coalition government with the Tories. Whatever the Lib Dems say about Labour, the Tories are the enemy. And the old adage “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” will be forefront in the minds of most Lib Dem party activists. It’s patent nonsense to think that the Lib Dems could, or would, form a coalition with the Conservative party without those activists either. Such a coalition would split the party in two and essentially destroy the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg would lose credibility within his own party. Not only that but I doubt very much that Nick Clegg would be able to work with David Cameron for more than six months before having a major falling out with the Conservative leader. They are poles apart politically.

Finally, it would go against the entire history of the Liberal Conservative relationship. Even old school Liberals see Conservatives as the old enemy – going back 150 years or so, to when the Liberals were for the most part, the governing party of the British Empire. Nick Clegg would have to be a true radical to go against all of that.

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