Since yesterday, in fact. Because in an otherwise thoughtful piece on hung Parliaments in The Independent, Steve Richards made this comment:
If there is a hung parliament there will almost certainly be no formal coalition government, even if Nick Clegg and Vince Cable would like to join one. Clegg is trapped by what is known as his party’s “triple lock”, a hidden rule that might become of vital relevance. Before entering a coalition he is bound to secure the agreement of his MPs, other national representatives and the membership.
Credit to Steve Richards for knowing about this rule. But “hidden”? It was decided on at the party’s Spring 1998 conference in a public debate with several hundred people in the hall and in front of the (mostly) massed ranks of the media. Given that the Saturday debate was seen as a grassroots revolt against Paddy Ashdown’s desire for deals with Labour, it was no obscure event. Both the Observer (“Ashdown on leash over Labour ties”) and the Sunday Times (“Coalition blow for Ashdown”) had coverage the following day for example.
Calling something debated in public, in front of the media and then run in national newspapers as “hidden” is using a different vocabulary from me I’m afraid. (I asked Steve Richards for a comment on why he thought this was the right word to use, but he didn’t get back to me before this post went to press.)
The key part of the motion reads:
Conference agrees that:
(i) in the event of any substantial proposal which could affect the Party’s independence of political action, the consent will be required of a majority of members of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons and the Federal Executive; and,
(ii) unless there is a three-quarters majority of each group in favour of the proposals, the consent of the majority of those present and voting at a Special Conference convened under clause 6.6 of the Constitution; and,
(iii) unless there is a two-thirds majority of those present and voting at that Conference in favour of the proposals, the consent of a majority of all members of the Party voting in the ballot called pursuant to clause 6.11 or 8.6 of the Constitution.
I remember the events as I was the aide in the debate and it was a long, highly charged debate with a lot of work to be done to smooth out administrative hiccups that could have otherwise distracted from the main issues at stake. I suspect one or two people in the audience may also have been distracted by the chance occurrence that myself and the debate’s chair – Liz Barker – by coincidence turned up in remarkably similar clothes. That and my then hair…