Nick Clegg should learn from history – don’t get into bed with the Tories | Dick Leonard

If the Lib Dem leader repeats his bad decision and enters an unnatural coalition, his ailing party would pay a heavy price – again

With every day that passes, it seems more likely that the Liberal Democrats, even if they lose more than half their seats, will determine – together with the SNP – whether the next government will be led by Labour or the Tories. They made their choice in 2010, and have been living with the consequences ever since.

In 2010, their decision was undoubtedly influenced by the parliamentary arithmetic, which made it easier for them to choose the Tories, as as that produced a two-party majority government, whereas an alliance with Labour would have required four or more parties to secure a majority.

Yet the effective choice had already been made before the election results were declared. Nick Clegg had already announced during the campaign that he would speak first to whichever of the larger parties won the most seats. It was already obvious that this would be the Tories: the only uncertainty was whether they would be able to govern alone.

Clegg has now made it clear that once again he (or his successor) would prioritise the larger party. I thought this an eccentric decision in 2010; this time I find it frankly incredible. In 2010 I had recently returned from 30 years as a foreign correspondent in Brussels, from where I was able to follow, and report on, political developments in all the EU member states.

Most of these states were permanently governed by two- or multi-party coalitions. At every election the smaller parties had to decide whom to collaborate with, and I never recall any of them making their decision in the same way as Clegg. Much more usual were decisions on the basis of which parties were closer in policy terms.

Had the Lib Dems followed this course in 2010, they would most probably have finished up in partnership with Labour. This time, the policy overlap with Labour is even more striking. It is difficult to suggest a single key policy area where the Lib Dems are closer to the Tories. A second coalition, or voting arrangement, with them would surely be an alliance against nature.

Last time, Clegg covered his actions by ensuring that he had majority support among Lib Dem MPs and the governing bodies of his party, under its “triple lock” procedures. He did not consult the nearly 7 million electors who had voted for his party. Within a few months of his taking office the polls were showing that around half of these had changed their allegiance.

Many of them did so because of his broken promises on student fees. More of them, however, probably defected because they had never expected that a self-proclaimed left-of-centre party would choose to jump into bed with its traditional opponents.

Five years on, the polls still show that more than half of the Lib Dem voters have abandoned their party. Yet Clegg stubbornly refuses to draw the obvious conclusion. In launching the party’s manifesto yesterday, he declined to express any preference between the two larger parties, expressing a passionate desire to participate in any coalition that was on offer.

In taking this stand, he is defying the lessons of history. On five other occasions before 2010, Liberals or their Whig predecessors entered into coalitions or electoral arrangements with the Tories – in 1794, 1835, 1886, 1918 and 1931. Each time the Tories benefited, and the Liberals were decimated or absorbed into the Tory fold.

If they now make the same bad choice for a second successive time, who can doubt that they will suffer the same fate, while losing any pretence of belonging to the centre-left?


Dick Leonard

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
David Cameron hugs Nick Clegg close | Simon Jenkins
Simon Jenkins: David Cameron's 'comprehensive offer' of coalition partnership to Nick Clegg may prove irresistible. But I predict it'll end in tears

Simon Jenkins

07, May, 2010 @2:33 PM

Article image
No, Nick Clegg, in 2010 Britain wasn’t ‘in the midst of an economic firestorm’ | Larry Elliott
At the time the Lib Dems decided to jump into bed with the Tories, the economy was on the mend. Then the coalition overdosed it with austerity

Larry Elliott

16, Apr, 2015 @2:30 PM

Article image
David Cameron and Nick Clegg speak about coalition talks

The Conservative leader says it is 'decision time' for the Liberal Democrats as discussions run into their fifth day. Clegg's party is also pursuing talks with Labour

11, May, 2010 @9:45 AM

Article image
Steve Bell: Nick Clegg gets an invitation to dance in the dark with Labour

Steve Bell on Gordon Brown, the Liberal Democrats and coalition talks

Steve Bell

10, May, 2010 @11:07 PM

Tories need to knock out Nick Clegg | Julian Glover
Julian Glover: The Tories can no longer write off Nick Clegg and beating him in key seats could be vital to a victory

Julian Glover

16, Apr, 2010 @11:34 AM

Article image
Nick Clegg to lay down key demands in coalition negotiations
Five commitments that will appear on the front page of the Lib Dem manifesto to be revealed by deputy prime minister

Frances Perraudin

12, Feb, 2015 @1:09 AM

Article image
What Nick Clegg can learn from François Mitterrand | Chris Huhne

Chris Huhne: The party faithful should not be dismayed by their leader's unpopularity. History shows the Lib Dems will bounce back

Chris Huhne

15, Sep, 2013 @4:00 PM

David Cameron and Nick Clegg lead coalition into power
Tory–Lib Dem coalition takes power after Labour talks fail, leaving David Cameron to become PM after five days of negotiation

Patrick Wintour, political editor

12, May, 2010 @12:40 AM

Nick Clegg: the power balancer | Robert Hazell
Robert Hazell: If the Lib Dem surge holds, and Britain wakes to a hung parliament, Clegg faces four big tasks

Robert Hazell

19, Apr, 2010 @6:00 PM

Article image
Scottish Tories intensify personal attacks on Nick Clegg
Comments by leader Annabel Goldie reflect anxiety about Liberal Democrat poll boost

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

19, Apr, 2010 @4:24 PM