Mr Clegg wants to remain in government. A minority Labour government should deny him that privilege

The Sunday Times magazine of 27 April 2014 carries a wonderfully illuminating interview with Nick Clegg, the leader of the LibDems and deputy prime minister in the Tory-led coalition government which no-one intentionally elected in 2010.  The interview, by Anne McElvoy, public policy editor of The Economist, perhaps inadvertently makes a powerful case for Labour, if it wins more seats than anyone else in a hung parliament, to govern without a coalition with the LibDems or anyone else, ideally under a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement in which the LibDems, or any other party holding the balance of power in another hung parliament, would support the minority government in its budget legislation and in votes of confidence, but would be free to help to defeat it in the House of Commons on individual issues without such defeats requiring the government to resign.  (This is a more accurate description of ‘confidence and supply’ than Ms McElvoy’s definition in her article.)

Because of the difficulty of reading this revealing article online, and because it includes such charmingly naive declarations of Mr Clegg’s earnest desire to go on being deputy prime minister, election after election, regardless of which of the bigger parties wins the most seats in the election, I am reproducing below extensive passages from Ms McElvoy’s pitiless deconstruction of Mr Clegg:

On the way up to [Nick Clegg’s] Sheffield seat, he wants to get something off his chest, which could well play a decisive role in the aftermath of the 2015 election, should no party emerge with a clear majority. In the event of a hung parliament ,which many pollsters consider likely, he says: “My party would not be interested in propping up a minority government without coalition.  It isn’t a role I would see as right for myself or the Liberal Democrats.”  ….  In other words, the deputy PM will only settle for full coalition – which means he intends to remain in the job, if no party wins an overall majority in next May’s general election.

For the first time, Clegg is explicitly ruling out any kind of loose pact arrangement, like the short-lived Lib-Lab one in the 1970s or variants on “confidence and supply” arrangements, a political anoraks’ phrase., whereby a smaller party provides support in parliamentary votes for one of the main parties, but without any official deal on ministerial jobs or influence.  No, says Clegg:  if they want his party, they need to put up with coalition influence – and, by implication, him in a big role. “I want to remain in government. We’ve only just got started and a 10-year period for us in government means we could make a major contribution.  The last thing I want to do is give up this job .”

It’s the kind of chutzpah that plays straight to his detractors’ view of Clegg as a self-aggrandising type. He says he objects to Labour and the Tories assuming that they have “a monopoly on power”.  Lib Dems should be “a political force in the life of this county – not just a think-tank”.  The charge that he is “power-hungry”, he adds, “tends to come from people with no qualms about seeking it for their own side”.

Ten years of Deputy Clegg is not a prospect that will gladden the hearts of Tories, who blame him for watering down Conservative rule.  Meanwhile, seasoned Labour figures mutter that having seen Clegg hold his coalition partner hostage in some areas, a minority Labour government would be a better option than an alliance with Clegg if they fall just short of outright victory next May.  Clegg snorts derisively that this is “swashbuckling stuff, but when it comes down to it a minority government would be unstable”. This may be true—but, unsurprisingly, the Tories and Labour deem it presumptuous that he assumes they can only make it work with him in tow.

…One of [Michael] Gove’s main advisers until his departure at the end of last year was the combative Dominic Cummings.  He told the BBC’s World at One last month that Clegg’s plan to extend free school meals had been a chaotic policy, announced on the hoof, solely for political gain with his left-leaning base….  When I contact Cummings, he unleashes a far more personal attack. “Nick Clegg is the worst kind of modern MP,” he says via email. “He is self-obsessed, sanctimonious and so dishonest he finds the words truth and lies have ceased to have any objective meaning, and he treats taxpayers’ money with contempt. He won’t do the hard work to get policy right – all he cares about is his image. He is a revolting character. And I say that after spending 15 years at Westminster.”

As putdowns go, this must be a contender for the Malcolm Tucker memorial prize.  “Whenever Clegg gave a speech, he’d demand that we spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money for his latest absurd gimmick,” Cummings continues. …  “We thwarted Clegg as much as we could,” Cummings says cheerfully. “We ignored his appalling Home Affairs Committee which he abuses for his own personal ends. We kept the Free Schools process and exam reform out of his hands, so he couldn’t subvert them too.”

… It’s not a world [Nick Clegg] wants to give up. ”I’d very much like to continue in government,” he says emphatically, comparing coalition to a “fascinating laboratory” of mixed ideas. Ultimately, the random forces of the electorate will determine whether Clegg is a one-term deputy PM or a fixture in British politics: grumbled about, but tolerated.

Perhaps the men in grey sandals will get him first. If Clegg has one combination of assets that could save his skin, it is a mixture of self-belief and a stubborn refusal to give way. Coalition, he muses, “is full of bumps and scrapes”. He’s had more than a few of those – the Third Man of British politics, who wants to stick around.  [Emphasis added.]

In the course of the article, Anne McElvoy usefully reminds us of the democratic credentials of this claimant to a permanent place in government for his party and permanent occupation of the post of deputy prime minister for himself:

[In the 2010 general election] the Lib Dems won 57 seats with 23% of the vote…  Clegg’s poll ratings in mid-April [2014] were between 9 and 11%, un-boosted by the publicity of two televised LBC debate clashes with Ukip’s Farage.

Mr Clegg is not by a long chalk the only UK politician who enjoys being a government minister and who would like to remain one for a long time, without the inconvenience of his party first needing to win a majority or plurality in the House of Commons at a general election.  But his claim to be able to force whichever of the main parties wins the most seats in a hung parliament next year into a coalition with the LibDems under his leadership is a transparent bluff.  First, there’s no guarantee that the LibDems, led by a deeply unpopular Nick Clegg and tarnished by five years propping up the most reactionary and incompetent Tory or Tory-led administration for a generation, will win enough seats in the new House of Commons to hold the balance of power and thus to be able to decide whether Ed Miliband or David Cameron[1] gets the keys to Number 10 Downing Street.  Secondly, if the LibDems do hold the balance of power in the 2015 election, the only sanction available to Mr Clegg against a refusal by a minority Labour or Tory government to include the LibDems in a new coalition will be to threaten to defeat the minority government on the floor of the House of Commons and to demand fresh elections.  But there is no constitutional requirement that the Queen should agree to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections just because Mr Clegg wants her to.  There might be another combination of parties able to command the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons without the cost and annoyance of another election soon after the first.  Or, even if a dissolution and fresh elections are granted, there is every likelihood that the electorate, cross with the LibDems and (probably) the Tories for defeating Labour before it had had a chance to show how its manifesto promises would work, would desert them in droves and vote to give Labour an overall majority in the new parliament, in which the LibDems would at once revert to well deserved obscurity.  Would Nick Clegg really be prepared to hold this gun to his own head and bravely pull the trigger?

Whatever Mr Clegg’s preference in the matter, much the best option for Labour as the biggest party in another hung parliament will be to carry out as much as it can of its election manifesto programme as a minority government, accepting defeat where necessary on some measures but pressing on regardless with the rest.  A coalition with the LibDems, assuming that they had enough seats to make up a majority in the House, would be constantly paralysed by LibDem refusal to accept the reversal of the reactionary and counter-productive coalition policies and laws of which they have been joint sponsors during the years of the present Conservative-led coalition government.  Progressive Labour policies would have to be repeatedly watered down to satisfy LibDem objections in a string of unsatisfactory horse trades.  A Labour minority government would be well placed to dare the opposition parties to frustrate a progressive and potentially popular programme: if they did, they could expect to pay a heavy electoral price when it became clear that the business of government could not be effectively carried out and that the only escape from deadlock would be a dissolution and an early second election.  In such an election the electorate might, with luck, be relied on to punish the opposition parties for frustrating necessary Labour measures and for wishing on it another wearisome and unnecessary election, from which Labour could reasonably hope to emerge this time with an overall majority.

So a Labour minority government and resistance to demands for another coalition are clearly Labour’s least bad option if Labour wins the most seats in another hung parliament.  Mr Clegg would miss his ministerial car and driver, his red boxes and his seat on the government front bench.  If so, tough.

[1] Footnote:  I assume for the sake of argument that David Cameron will still be leader of the Conservative party in May 2015 when the next general election is due to take place.  However, if Scotland votes for independence in September 2014, it’s difficult to see how a prime minister who will have presided over the dissolution of the United Kingdom as a direct result of his personal complacency, ignorance, failure of judgement and incompetence could remain in office for another eight fraught post-referendum months.  In such circumstances Mr Cameron’s resignation would seem inevitable.  When the prime minister resigns, the rest of the government automatically resigns with him, although it doesn’t necessarily follow that there is a new general election for a new government.  In that case would George Osborne or Boris Johnson have replaced Mr Cameron as prime minister by May of next year? Or would Ed Miliband have moved into Number 10 following the resignation of the Cameron-Clegg coalition and a fresh general election in October or November of 2014?  That question goes well beyond the scope of this post, and is not directly  relevant to its argument.  But it certainly deserves to be discussed and debated nevertheless, and with some urgency — elsewhere.

I hasten to make it clear that I would emphatically not regard the loss of Scotland as a price worth paying for the collapse of the Cameron-Clegg coalition eight months earlier than scheduled, much as I would welcome the latter.  Scottish secession would be a catastrophe for Britain (and probably, although not necessarily, for Scotland).  Another eight months of the Tory-led coalition after the referendum would be a heavy burden, but Britain would survive it, and even recover from it eventually.

Uopdate (8 May 2014):  A lively debate on the main issues discussed here is going on in comments on a shortened version of this post on LabourList:  see




4 Responses

  1. ObiterJ says:

    I intend to offer this interesting Ephem a fuller response.  Meanwhile, I must observe that it might well the electorate in Sheffield who deal with Mr Clegg.  On that, I certainly live in hope.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I greatly look forward to your promised fuller response (and share your hope!).

    I had been expecting a rush of LibDem supporters of Mr Clegg coming to his defence against this blog post. So far, however, only a very loud silence….

  2. john miles says:

    I’m not really a LibDem supporter, but I expect I’ll vote for them next time.
    This is because I’d rather have a coalition, for all its faults, than Conservatives or New Labour on their own.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, John. Two points on this: first, there’s no longer any risk of “New Labour” governing on its own. New Labour is basically a thing of the past, although in some situationsw the bad memory lingers on. Secondly, there’s no sure way to vote for a coalition (despite some LibDems’ claims in 2010 that “the British people had voted against either of the bigger parties governing alone”. Unless you vote in a constituency where there’s a two way race between the LibDem and the Tory, or between the LibDem and the Labour candidate, there’s no point ion voting LibDem; you might as well not vote at all if all you want is a coalition and you have no view on which of Cameron and Miliband is to occupy No. 10 (which would suggest that you have no political values at all). In any case, there can be no certainty that the LibDems will win enough seats at the next general election to be able to decide whether to put Cameron or Miliband into No. 10. Since the LibDems can’t emerge as the biggest party and so able to form a government, there’s no much point in voting for them if you want your vote to affect, however marginally, who forms the next government.

  3. john miles says:

    “New Labour is basically a thing of the past.
    That’s the first thing Mr Milibamd said when he became leader.
    Then he got lumbered with Balls, Harman, Burnham, Alexander, Cooper Flint, Benn etc etc.
    Since when do leopards change their spots?
    There’s no sure way to vote for a coalition.
    Only too right.
    …which would suggest that you have no political values at all.
    Disambiguation: “politcs” is not the same as”party politics.”
    …there can be no certainty that the LibDems will win enough seats at the next general election to be able to decide whether to put Cameron or Miliband into No. 10. –
    I just don’t follow your reasoning here.

  4. ObiterJ says:

    We have a deeply unpopular coalition government and, basically, the electorate do not get another say until May 2015. In September, the Scots get to decide on their independence which, if it is a YES vote, will come by March 2016 (at least that’s the date Salmond wants and he wants it for purely historical nonsense to do with Bannockburn). Whilst all things are possible, at the moment I cannot really see ANY other party wishing to be in coalition with the treacherous Lib Dems – particularly if Clegg manages to hold his seat! In any event, coalitions have not been generally the British way – (World War 2 apart). Thus, we could have a scenario in which Scotland (led by a super confident Salmond) has voted YES and is on its way out of the Union and a government (in London) weakened by being the largest party in the Commons but largest by only a small number. This, quite likely, scenario would be the worst of all worlds for the nation. Clearly, other possibilities exist and it is not entirely easy to forecast any of it with confidence.
    To my mind, the worst thing has been the Fixed Term Parliaments Act which should be repealed. It would, I think, have been a good thing to have had a general election in May this year. That would have got Westminster sorted out in advance of the Scottish referendum.
    I would appreciate your thoughts on this. Sincerely, ObiterJ

    Brian writes: Thank you for these thoughts, with which I agree generally. The share of the national vote at general elections won by each of the three major parties (pre-UKIP) has been declining ever since 1951 to the point where it now looks most unlikely that any one party can win an overall majority in the house of commons. The recent performance of UKIP in winning an unexpected share of the vote at the expense of both Labour and the Conservatives makes an overall majority by either yet more unlikely. My own guess is that both Labour and the Conservatives will fall short of an overall majority of Commons seats by a margin likely to be greater than the number of seats likely to be won at the next election by the LibDems, in which case there would be little point in another coalition with them, whether Lab-LibDem or Con-LibDem, since such a coalition would still not command an overall majority.

    Even if the LibDems do win enough seats to constitute an overall majority with Labour (assuming that Labour emerges with more seats than anyone else but still not an overall majority), I suspect that the Tories’ experience for the past four years of working in a coalition with the LibDems will deter Labour from trying to do the same thing. In my view nuch the best course for Labour, or the Tories if they win more seats than Labour, will be to govern for a year or so as a minority government, cobbling together fluctuating alliances with several of the smaller parties to get their key legislation through, and when there are insufficient allies left, to engineer a defeat by a 2/3rds mahority in the House to enable them to go back to the electorate with an attractive manifesto and an appeal for an overall majority in fresh elections.

    We shall probably have to get used to a rather unpredictable parliamentary situation, with alliances rather than coalitions forming for one-off specific purposes and then dissolving until the next vote on a controversial issue requiring a different line-up of supporters. This often happens in other democracies and there’s no reason why we should be immune. But it will be hard work and frustrating and the main party forming a minority government is likely to want to try at another election for an overall majority before very long.

    The Scottish referendum is the joker in the pack and whatever the result it’s likely to be a game-changer. If the Scots vote for independence the ensuing negotiations on all the thousands of issues that will arise could well drag on for many years: the Salmond time-table seems to me a quite unrealistic pipe dream. If the rUK and the Scots can’t agree on some fundamental points, there may have to be a fresh referendum. If it turns out that Cameron has presided over a referendum that will lead to Scottish secession and the disintegration of the United Kingdom, it will be hard to see how he can lead the team negotiating with Edinburgh on the terms of separation. In that event I think he and his government might be forced to resign and ask the Queen for fresh elections, not waiting until May next year. In those circumstances the main political debate could well focus much more on the rUK-Scottish negotiations and the terms on which Scotland should be allowed to secede (including the constitutional implications for England) than on such standard fare as immigration, the EU, and Boris’s leadership ambitions.
    I very much agree that the fixed parliament law is deeply flawed and inconsistent with our basic constitutional principles. It should not be rocket science, the law being so artificial and open to manipulation, to find a way to circumvent it, once there’s a situation in which all the major parties recognise that fresh elections are obviously the only way to clear a log-jam.

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