One readily understands why my friend Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, holds the Labour party in contempt. As he told the Financial Times (25 April), Labour has been consumed by 'frothing bile' towards his party for the past five years. Whereas in 2010 Clegg stepped up in fraught circumstances to help restore the financial stability of the country, Labour in opposition has been at its worst: petty, snide and tribal. While failing to develop an attractive alternative prospectus of their own, Labour has given the Lib Dems no benefit of the doubt. Their portrayal of Clegg as Cameron's poodle has embittered the campaign.
Clegg is correct in saying that, in the expected event of a hung parliament, he will speak in the first instance to the party that has won the most seats. Yet that is only the first step: it is perfectly constitutional for a government to be composed of smaller parties, possibly buttressed from outside by others. In constitutional terms the decisive factor in determining who should lead Britain is not the relative size of the parliamentary party but whether a ministry can sustain a majority in the House. More specifically, the real test is the 'no confidence' vote that would follow a vote which defeated the first Queen's Speech or the first budget of a minority government. That moment cannot come before mid-June. As the polls stand now, it is more likely that Ed Miliband will be able to command a tacit majority in such a vote than David Cameron.
In such circumstances, the Lib Dems become the effective kingmakers. I doubt it is true that Nick Clegg's personal penchant is to do another deal with the Conservatives: my friend is a genuine centrist, one of nature's agnostics. But even were Clegg a Tory fifth-columnist, as Labour activists allege, his decision in January 2013 to block the constituency boundary review that would have given the Tories another 20 seats tells another story.
Although the pundits are obsessing about numbers, it is the policy content of a new coalition pact that will matter most to Lib Dem activists who will gather at a special conference to approve any deal. Here, too, the balance of advantage lies with Labour. After all, we already know how little of Lib Dem policy can be accomplished with the Tories, and how prone a Cameron-Clegg deal is to mega botch-ups. More of the same will not deliver reform of the House of Lords or electoral reform for the House of Commons.
What could be a sound basis for another Con-Lib coalition? As the ever more junior partners in another coalition with the Tories, Lib Dem ministers would be unlikely to be able to stop Cameron from holding his reckless, feckless and divisive referendum in 2017 on the absurd proposition that the UK should leave the European Union. The Lib Dems would be feeble to accept proportional representation for local government as a sufficient concession for the price of risking Britain's European future, not least because a 2017 referendum will damage the country's economy and its standing in world affairs. And it is crazy to imagine that a referendum which asks such a stupid question will settle the quarrel about Britain and Europe: immediately after the next French and German elections (also in 2017) the EU will embark on a major revision of the EU treaties with the aim of deepening the federal character of the Union. The hapless British electorate will then again have to decide whether to stay in the Union and go federal, to leave altogether or to accept a second-class form of membership.
None of the main British political parties, including the Lib Dems, yet knows what it would do when faced with the option of a federal Europe. But there is at least a chance that a Labour-Liberal government might rise to the occasion and convert the UK from being a perennial part of Europe's problems into something more akin to a solution. The challenge will be to beat back British nationalism. A jointly re-discovered vocation to European unity and international solidarity might bridge the great rift in the centre-left between Liberal and Labour.
As to the other items on the Lib Dem hit list, the grossly disproportionate allocation of seats in Scotland is bound to trigger more positive attitudes in Labour's ranks to electoral reform. Miliband and Clegg need to do no other than pick up the report by Roy Jenkins, commissioned by Tony Blair in 1998, and implement it. (Jenkins recommended AV Plus.)
Admittedly, few of these important policy questions have emerged as serious debating points in the election campaign - most of which has consisted of interminable arguments over how to fund the NHS in which both interviewers and interviewees seem equally confused. Nevertheless, in spite of the Lib Dem mantra that they would 'cut less than the Tories and borrow less than Labour', it is clear that the Lib Dems and Labour are closer to each other on fiscal policy than they are to the Tories.
Be nicer to the Scots
Nick Clegg also insists that he would not be a part of a government that relied on the Scottish Nationalists for 'life support'. That seems to me to be a mistake. For one thing, because of legislation of which Clegg is proud, the life of the new parliament is fixed for five years. Earlier Liberal governments survived decently enough on backing from the Irish Nationalists. Many who will vote for the SNP at this election are not supporters (yet) of full Scottish independence: they are there to be wooed back to Westminster politics by attractive parties of radical reform. Federalism at home and abroad delivered by a Lib-Lab coalition could do just that - as well as provide a rationale for the reform of the House of Lords in the process. Neither Miliband nor Clegg need be tempted down the road of English nationalism now trodden in his typically careless way by Cameron. In politics, at least, being on life support is better than the alternative.
Liberal Democrats are facing historic decisions that will determine the future of the party, country and Europe. A coalition with Labour backed up from the outside by the nationalists might be exotic but not necessarily unstable. It would surely be better than what we have now. It may even, in time-honoured phrase, break the mould of British politics.