POLITICS

Simon Hughes Says Lib Dems Have Not Planned For Coalition Negotiations Despite Hung Parliament Polls

10/04/2015 00:00 BST | Updated 10/04/2015 08:59 BST

One month until the general election, Simon Hughes insists, the Liberal Democrat leadership has not got together to plot out whether it would prefer to be in power with David Cameron or Ed Miliband. Or how the party would approach negotiations.

"We honestly have had no meeting to sit down and discuss what we would rather do, because we are going to leave it to the public to decide," he says.

"Categorically we haven’t sat down and worked through what a strategy would be on the basis that the Tories would be the largest party because they might not be."

With another hung parliament almost a certainty, this may be a bit surprising. But in an interview with The Huffington Post UK in his south London constituency, the justice minister and veteran MP is clear about one thing. The party must go back into coalition if it can.

"All options are going to be on the table but being in government is better than not," he says, in a message to those in his party that would prefer to shun power and return to the backbenches. "The purpose of politics is to be in government not in opposition."

"We have been building up to government for 65 years. Since 1945. Do we really want to give up being in government after five years? Do we literally want one golden moment?"

The party's national poll rating is less than golden. And in private many Lib Dems concede that retaining 30 seats would be more than a good night. But Hughes is boldly confident the party will return to Westminster on May 8 with the majority of the parliamentary party in tact - although refuses to put a number on it.

"You know the strategy," he says. "It's very clear. We are being realistic. We are saying we have to concentrate on defending the territory we have. We are not going to make sweeping gains.

"There are a handful of seats where we could win, like Watford and Maidstone and some of the Cornish seats and others. But in general terms we are holding our ground, that is the strategy. Currently we have 56 seats, if we can hold, we will be the third party again and that must be the ambition."

He adds: "If that’s the case then we will be players in the next parliament without doubt and players in the debate about who is in government."

In the face of an SNP surge, clinging onto third place is quite a goal. Nicola Sturgeon's party has already started measuring the curtains in the Lib Dem offices.

"The opinion polls, yes of course, have shown us much lower than we were last time," Hughes concedes. "But we don't have a proportional system, we win seat by seat. We are going to do much better relative to our opinion poll showing compared to last time." Is that not a bit strange, I ask, for the Lib Dems to be counting on first past the post to save them "Yeah," he laughs." It is, it is. We have always argued for a different system. But it’s the system we've got."

It is assumed that Hughes, who is on the left of the Lib Dems, would prefer a deal with Labour. And that he would gleefully get stuck into differentiating himself from his Tory coalition partners. But, perhaps due to local considerations, Labour is his target.

Branding Miliband a "threat" to the economy, the justice minister is damning of the prospect of any deal with Labour. "I am absolutely am clear. It would be as difficult and as tough to be in a coalition with Labour. There would be so many things they would be wanting to be authoritarian and centralist about," he says.

"I know people think because I come from the left I would be more sympathetic. In principle I would. But, I am really clear having watched Labour in government for 13 years that it would be really, really difficult ."

ed miliband

The pile of leaflets stacked in the market square headquarters of the Bermondsey and Old Southwark Liberal Democrats has a message for voters: "It's a choice between Simon Hughes and Ed Miliband's Labour Party".

By the river in South London, Hughes is battling Labour to keep hold of the seat he has held since 1983. An Ashcroft poll, the only public survey done of the constituency, suggested Hughes' 8,530 majority has almost been wiped out, dropping from 19 per cent to just 1 per cent. "We are working on the basis that’s accurate. We are assuming it's as tight as that," he says.

"The issue is the economy. The economy is in a better place, it's not perfect, job not finished. There is a real concern Labour always left the economy in a worse place than it started. Every time they have been in government. A lot of ordinary working people, people on low incomes, realise they would be the people who suffer most if the economy was not improving.

Hughes adds: "More and more of them are seeing the danger of risking Labour."

"It’s the 9th election. We've won them all so far. I've had a different Labour opponent every single election. One of my previous Labour opponents has gone off to join the Greens. One has joined the Trade Union party and one has become a Tory Lord."

Another Lib-Con coalition is clearly on the table. But Cameron has said he would resign as prime minister if he is unable to deliver an in/out EU referendum. It is something the Lib Dems warn against but is almost certainly going to be the reddest of Tory red line in any coalitions negotiations.

But Hughes is less sure. "My assumption is that both David Cameron and Ed Miliband will be so keen to be prime minister if they have the opportunity, almost certainly without a majority knowing they have to make accommodations, that actually what they may represent as red lines now may not be their red lines later because actually being PM is is more important prize to them than all the other things. That is my general political instinct."

"We have had consistent view. I am a committed European and internationalist. I am personally really clear. We benefit hugely from being in the EU." An "artificially contrived" referendum, Hughes says, would be "really bad".

But with a referendum such a core issue for Tory MPs, as well as Ukip voters, the Lib Dems could surely get almost anything they wanted in return? "Let's wait and see what the figures are. If the Tories get hammered the issue won't arise. It's no point worrying about things," Hughes says.

What will those figures be? "I have no idea, the opinion polls suggest different numbers of seats, I don’t know which of the other parties is going to come first or second in seats or share of the vote. So the answer is, I am not thinking about that.

"It is a more complex picture than ever in your lifetime [29 years, for the record]," the 63-year-old tells me. "When I was first voting, a long time ago, the assumption was that nine out of 10 people would vote Labour or Tory … we are in a totally different politics now."

As for the negotiations themselves, Hughes expects them to drag on for a lot longer than in 2010. "The Queen's Speech is fixed on 27th May. The working assumption is it will take it could take up to nearly then. So it could take 20 days rather than six days. Which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing."

nick clegg tim farron

All eyes will be on Sheffield Hallam on the evening of May 7. Nick Clegg, who Hughes praises for a "phenomenal" contribution to the party, could lose his seat. If that happens, the leadership race could burst into the open before the sun rises the next morning.

Senior Lib Dems are already positioning themselves for the succession - whenever that may be.

Tim Farron, the grassroots favourite on the left of the party, was recently stung by criticism from Paddy Ashdown that he was too obvious in his campaigning for the top job. And Vince Cable, a rival on the left, told BuzzFeed his colleague was "not credible" as a leader because he had not been a minister.

"Tim is a friend. I went to his wedding," Hughes says when asked if Farron has been to open about his leadership ambitions. "I supported him a lot in his campaign to be selected in Westmorland and Lonsdale and win the seat. I mean, Tim has to play his role as he sees fit. He is now foreign affairs spokesman. He is very good at it."

But he adds: "I don’t think it's helpful before the election or at any other time to do anything that undermines the leader. I think we absolutely stand together."

Hughes says everyone should be "fully supportive" of Clegg no matter what side of the party they are from. "It's a broadly based team. People like Vince who come originally from a Labour background. It's got people like Ed Davey, who again, I have mentored and supported in the cabinet and is really committed and effective.

"I don’t think any comments that suggest positioning after the election... I expect Nick to be reelected in Sheffield. I expect to be reelected here, not because I'm complacent but because I think we will do the work to deliver the seat. I expect Vince to be elected. Pretty well we will all be there. If that’s the case and we are in government then there may be a role for Tim in government. It's not my call it's Nick call. He must make that choice."

Hughes has run twice, unsuccessfully, to be leader of the Lib Dems. Now with ministerial experience under his belt, does he fancy another shot at leading the party? "No," he quickly replies with a laugh. "No, no, no no, I wouldn't. I have been party president. I have run for leader. There are lots of other people."

TIM FARRON INTERVIEW: Nick Clegg Is 'Lovely' About Lib Dem Leadership Speculation

simon hughes mp

Like Farron, Hughes is also a former party president. In the first years of the coalition Hughes served as deputy leader, shunning a ministerial role. A decision he told HuffPost UK in 2012 left him free to speak his mind to "any [Lib Dem] minister from Nick downwards".

But in December 2013, Hughes accepted a job in the Ministry of Justice. Was this done to silence him? Hughes laughs. "The deal I insisted on was we should make sure the deputy leader was not a minister. So there was always, close to the leader, someone who could speak truth to power, as it were, and say the party view or MPs view is not that."

But then the offer came up to replace Lord McNally as justice and civil liberties minister in the MoJ. "I just thought, this was something I know about, care about, I don't need tutorials before I go the department. I know the territory. I thought I could make a difference," he says.

I ask if he would like to carry on in the job in a second coalition. "I would love to do that. Absolutely yes. I think people recognise the contribution I have been able to make in 16-months," he leans forward to emphasise the point. "A couple of people at the end of my term were very supportive and said 'Simon, I really hope you are back'.

He thinks back over his time in office working with the Conservatives. "I've had various battles which I have won," he says. "Obviously I would rather be justice secretary than number two. I would bid to do that please."

The Tory justice secretary Hughes had to work with was a natural political friend of the Lib Dem. "I ended up in a department with Chris Grayling as secretary of state. A right-wing, anti-coalition, anti-EU, anti-European Court of Human Rights Tory. I could not be more different politically than him. When I was appointed he probably thought a lot worse than 'oh dear'.

"Actually we had a discussion at the beginning. We declared our differences and we have worked pragmatically. Sometimes we have just had to agree we would go our different ways."

How much, I wonder, are personalities important to any future coalition deal, with either party. "I'm naturally gregarious and I hope accommodating," Hughes says. "You can deal with the personalities as long as they don't work behind you and seek to undermine things."

But surely one barrier to any Labour-Lib Dem deal, however unlikely, could be the vitriol slung at Clegg and Lib Dem ministers by the Labour leadership. "I think you just get over that. You have grown up adult politics. If you are in government you work with your colleagues," he says.

"I never found a personality issue," Hughes says of Miliband, recalling the time he shadowed the Labour leader when he was energy secretary. "Harriet Harman is my political neighbour. We have worked out how to live with each other. She has been an MP for just longer that I have. We have worked on stuff together in the interests of the borough."

Despite Hughes optimism that the Lib Dems can return as the third party, beating an SNP surge that could see the Scottish nationalists get close to 50 seats must be a tall order. In Scotland, recent polls suggest chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander is in trouble and even former leader Charles Kennedy could lose his seat.

"On the ground, the big battle is to get maximum seats. We are fighting 56 separate battle and a few more," he insists. "I have been to places where I know we are gaining ground. I was in Sutton where we have two seats. It looks as if we are doing what is neccessary to hold those.

"Not long ago I did something for [business minister] Jo Swinson near Glasgow. Jo will hold her seat. I think she will hold. I think she has done the work, done the campaigning.

"The evidence on the ground is where are people who have good records, who have done a good job, who work all year round, who look after their constituencies will be rewarded. And therefore if that’s the case we should be able to come out in third place because we want to be in government."

Gesturing around the square, Hughes adds: "My job is to make sure I hold my seat. I owe it to our members, councillors and supporters."

Name recognition and incumbency is seen as the Lib Dem's secret weapon. The local party is convinced it is a extra powerful one here. "On the ground I think we are winning on the issues. I have a record of having represented people. The phrase we often use is: 'everyone knowns someone who has been helped by Simon Hughes'."

He adds: "Which I think is true."