Sketch: Clegg’s craven courtiers

Being at the mercy of Nick ‘Kingmaker’ Clegg is never pleasant, as both Gordon Brown and David Cameron effectively conveyed the afternoon after the night before.

By Alex Stevenson

On this day of all days, the pair are united by one thing only: their miserable discomfort at being at Clegg’s mercy.

For much of the campaign the sudden surge in the polls bred a strange respect for Clegg. Both Brown and Cameron conceded they had something to learn from the Lib Dem leader. But last night’s miserable performance changed all that. The scales fell from their eyes and he was revealed to be the third wheel he truly is. Only, as all tricycle-riders know, the third wheel can often be the most important one of them all.

Brown was first to open his suit. His Downing Street statement had ‘I’m still prime minister’ written all over it. The door of No 10 opened and Brown, with a slow walk, advanced to the podium. “Slow walk,” a journalist muttered to himself.

The PM was, well, prime ministerial. He talked of sending Alistair Darling to international financial meetings before reminding himself that the prospect of a hung parliament was now “very real and very pressing”. Brown looked pressed as he assessed his rather bleak situation. “We find ourselves in a position,” he said reluctantly, “unknown to this generation of political leaders.” That position being Labour’s inability to control the confidence of the Commons, presumably.

Brown, feigning nonchalance, had the air of a geeky teenager trying to accept a date with the hot blonde in the year above. “I would of course be prepared to discuss with Mr Clegg…” he began, trying not to look utterly, utterly desperate.

An hour later, across the north-east portion of St James’ Park, Cameron was being gazed at by the Churchill portrait in the St Stephen’s Club. His discomfort was as real, but manifested itself in different ways. He referred to a “committee” on electoral reform, as if the Yes Minister-style prevaricating of such bodies had never been invented.

Cameron is so near, yet so far. As his Jaguar swept in to St Stephen’s – a quick wave to the crowd came before he shuffled his tired-looking frame inside – the earnest, concerned, utterly engaged crowd outside pondered his plans. Inside he was trying to explain how, apart from a few minor red lines on trifling issues like Europe, immigration and the deficit, he and Clegg were like long-lost political brothers. George Osborne, Oliver Letwin and Eric Pickles watched from the wings as he stretched his party as far as it could go.

The Tories are offering the Lib Dems a “comprehensive” package, to be sure. Perhaps it might stand more chance of success if it was upgraded to an ‘academy’ package. But this is no time for a quibble: instead, as Cameron didn’t say, it was up to the Lib Dems to grow up and fall into line. We can’t go on like this.

Cameron, with the largest party in the Commons, appears to be adopting the cheeky salesman approach to coalition-building, getting away with everything he can. He may be pushing Clegg too far – and inadvertently sending the Lib Dems into the welcoming, but cold-hearted arms of the man who remains Britain’s prime minister.