Fantasy leadership scenarios – the silly season has arrived

There currently seems to be a cottage industry of Tories writing off Nick Clegg. This article by Iain Martin in the Telegraph is typical:

The reality is that if Labour is the largest party after the next election and the Lib Dems want to talk, then a pre-condition is going to be the absence of Clegg.

This ignores two points:

1. Due to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, we don’t necessarily have to wait until the next election before there is an opportunity for Labour and the Lib Dems to go into coalition.

2. As with all these predictions it depends on the post-election maths. If Nick Clegg is the elected Lib Dem leader at the time, then Labour may have no practical alternative than negotiate with Clegg. The other options might be to limp on in a minority government or go back to the people with the equivalent of “Please Miss, that boy is nasty so I won’t play with him”.

Commentators mention the vitriol which has been thrown back between Labour and the Lib Dems. This is par for the course and hasn’t stopped inter-party co-operation in hundreds of situations over centuries.

The point is often made that Clegg refused to form a coalition with Brown at the head of the Labour party, and in the same way, Labour would refuse to deal with the Lib Dems with Clegg at the helm. This point ignores one thing. Clegg had a choice. He was able to deal with the Tories as an alternative, which he did. Labour might not have that option after an election. Then again, they might, and Labour/Conservative coalitions are not unheard of in councils up and down the country – strange as it may seem.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • All this speculation misses the main actor in all this, namely, the electorate. I really don’t think Miliband has a choice about this, it is just a political impossibility for Clegg to serve as DPM in a Labour led government after five years as DPM in a Tory led government. The electorate and the media just wouldn’t wear it. If the situation arises then he will have to go. The party is bigger than one man’s personal ambition.

  • Labour Tory coalitions are not strange – up until 2006 those two parties had considerably more ideologically in common than Lib Dems did with either of the others. Even now there are still areas where Lib Dems are more different – even though that difference has been considerably reduced, creating less diversity in British politics.

  • Point 1 – Yes we will – the maths isn’t there for a Lib-Lab coalition before the next GE (unless you are anticipating some mass number of by-elections over the next couple of years).

  • When the crunch comes the electorate will not let Ed Milliband anywhere near Government so it’s just a waste of time even considering it

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 23rd Jul '12 - 5:40pm

    @Lennon it is if you add in SNP, Plaid Cymru and SDLP.

    Or SNP, SDLP, Green and Alliance

    Or SNP, PC, Green, Alliance

    A fairly unlikely and potentially fragile series of alternative coalitions, I accept, but possible nonetheless.

    Or you could go with DUP and PC. Or DUP and Green, Alliance and Respect. Or various other combos.

    Or you could just have a minority LibLab government.

    All fairly unimaginable, but possible nonetheless.

  • AndrewR – since when did the media have a say in who governs the country? (I mean a proper, official say.)

  • David Allen 23rd Jul '12 - 6:21pm

    “it is just a political impossibility for Clegg to serve as DPM in a Labour led government after five years as DPM in a Tory led government. The electorate and the media just wouldn’t wear it.”

    Agreed. But, how about Danny Alexander carrying on as a minister in a Labour led government? Or Burstow, or Moore, or even Vince Cable, come to that? To varying extents, they would all face problems – with the Tories screaming incessantly about a bunch of turncoats, and with the Prescott / Reid Tendency on the Labour side echoing the same thing.

    If we stay in Coalition up to 2015, then we can have only one plausible aim beyond 2015, and that is to continue in Coalition with the Tories. Despite a little recent trimming, dissembling and feinting, that is where Clegg will be aiming to go.

    If, therefore, we want to have any kind of wider options after 2015, we must pull out of the Coalition well before that date.

  • It is absolutely ridiculous to suggest that we should pull out of the coalition beforehand and somehow the public will reward us! They are not stupid. We’ve waited 80 years to be in a position of influence and some members want us to leave early! You really couldn’t make it up!

  • Clegg did Labour a favour by speeding up Brown’s replacement and consistently since then Clegg has done more to rehabilitate Labour’s standing with the electorate than Miliband himself. I would have thought the last thing Labour want would be the Lib Dems with a popular leader.

  • Alex Macfie 23rd Jul '12 - 7:45pm

    @David Allen: Your suggestion of aiming to continue in coalition with the Tories after 2015 would reduce us to an irrelevancy: guaranteed. However many seats we may win using such a strategy, we would have no influence whatsoever over policy because the Tories would know that come what may, we would always go into coalition with them, and would be able to say that we are obliged to sign up to whatever they ask for, because we campaigned on a platform of governing with the Tories and we have to keep that promise. If their platform was withdrawal from the EU, abolition of the NHS, and bringing back hanging, we would have to sign up to it. *We would have no leverage at all*. And what would happen if the Tories won an overall majority? If we then went into opposition (the only sensible option under such a scenario), then the same people as you mention would be screaming “turncoats”. But I’d rather they called us that than we became poodles. There is no future for us in being a permanent adjunct to either of the other two parties. National Liberals? Liberal Unionists?

    And anyway, your idea is not how coalition-building works elsewhere in Europe. For instance, our Dutch sister party D66 has participated in coalition governents with both left-wing and right-wing parties recently. Why, just because we will have been in government with the Tories up to 2015, should we be in any way obliged to continue to have an arrangement with them after the election? You might as well argue that being in government with the Tories nationally obliges us to work with the Tories, and only the Tories, in local government (so we would have an effective one-party state here in Kingston-upon-Thames), the London Assembly, the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Or that we should stand aside for them in by-elections. But from the very beginning, it was always “govern together, campaign separately”. We work any other way, and we are no longer an independent party, and there is no point in us existing.

  • Elizabeth Patterson 23rd Jul '12 - 8:55pm

    Iain Martin and the right wing press are getting increasingly desperate in bad -mouthing Nick Clegg.
    I hope he takes this as a compliment; it shows that he is the politician they fear most because of his pivotal position. If only, only, they could get us to get rid of Nick then their prospects would be brighter.
    Hence the narrative is; if you want to avoid obliteration at the polls you must depose Nick and choose A or B or even C , none of whom, however worthy would have the diplomatic skills to run a coalition.

    As for Labour, sure they might take a few tethered goats from us if they were short of seats. But they have never been interested in proper power- sharing with us. Remember the Lib-lab pact, and how they deceived us. And then how Blair deceived Paddy.

    I think we have a good team and we must hold our nerve. I hope Vince will not get carried away. I worry about that little streak of vanity that makes him flirt with the idea of power. He is great on economic matters but Party Leader requires a wider set of skills and if he were leader he could soon find himself in a Ming situation, derided by those who once flattered him.

  • Alex Macfie 23rd Jul '12 - 9:28pm

    Blair won with a landslide in 1997. Whatever his faults, I cannot begrudge him for forming a single-party government under this circumstance, and I cannot see how the Lib Dems could possibly have gained anything from seats in the cabinet. If Paddy was deceived by Blair, then he let himself be deceived and it was his own fault.

  • Ian23rd Jul ’12 – 7:23pm …………….. We’ve waited 80 years to be in a position of influence and some members want us to leave early!……………….

    What ‘real’ influence have we had? Making ‘bad bills’ (NHS,etc.) a little less bad is not a success when one considers that, without our connivance, the bad bills would not have got off the ground.

    You really couldn’t make it up!

  • @ Alex Macfie,

    I obviously haven’t made myself clear. I am not advocating a continuing colaition with the Tories after 2015. Far from it! I am merely arguing that, if we don’t want to be stuck in permanent partnership with the Tories – and I don’t – then we must end the Coalition well before 2015. If we don’t make the break earlier, we won’t be able to make the break at all.

  • @Dave Allen: But I think you are wrong; it’s rather insulting to the intelligence of voters to think that they won’t be able to understand that we will be standing with our own manifesto running our own separate campaign after 5 years in government with another party, and that whether we get to be in government, and with whom, will depend on the election. They do get this concept that we are still a separate party from the Tories, and that just because we’ve been in government with them it doesn’t mean we have to merge with them. Some of the media initially struggled with, for example, us and the Tories standing separate candidates at by-elections, and that sort of ignorance may continue dog us in a political milieu where coalition governments are not the norm, but we cannot let it dictate how we campaign or how we deal with other parties.

  • Tony Dawson 24th Jul '12 - 9:04am

    @Elizabeth Patterson:

    “Iain Martin and the right wing press are getting increasingly desperate in bad -mouthing Nick Clegg.”

    Over the past thirty-odd years in politics, I have noticed, several times, politicians and political commentators deliberately putting up an idea to be knocked down, hoping that this will confirm a situation which will be good for themselves.

    For the Tories to succeed in the next General Election will require 30 or more Lib Dem seats to vote Tory rather than Lib Dem. So Tories will want the Lib Dems to be led by the person who will likely deliver those seats to them.

    ” you must depose Nick and choose A or B or even C , none of whom, however worthy would have the diplomatic skills to run a coalition.”

    Elizabeth, I don’t know who you are damning with the ‘worthy’ phrase but I can assure you that many of our MPs possess a substantial skill range. What I can assure you of is that the Daily Telegraph wants to see Lib Dems obliterated more than any newspaper in Britain does.

    As for coalition end game scenarios, Alex Macfie, above, talks of options which could be “insulting to the intelligence of voters” I think it quite likely that the political intelligence of voters in general is higher than that of some who post here. What are these ‘intelligen’t voters saying now?

  • Richard Shaw 24th Jul '12 - 9:05am


    If I recall correctly, what happened was that before/during/after GE2010 Nick said that the party with the largest number of votes would have first refusal in any negotiations. It was never said Lib Dems would only deal with or go into coalition with the party with the largest share. The subsequent negotiations after the election reflected this. The Lib Dems owe nothing to either Labour or the Conservatives and should regard siren voices from (supporters of) either party with equal suspicion.

    Frankly in a straight choice between coalition between Labour or the Conservatives, I would have difficultly choosing either group of Tories.

  • Dave G Fawcett 24th Jul '12 - 11:17am

    Let’s stop fantasizing and start looking at reality. A far more likely scenario than another coalition is that we w ill return to the ‘good old days’ of one majority one party government withe the Lib Dems once again in the wilderness.

  • Clegg has overseen a series of catastrophes for the party, in terms of both electoral results and public credibility. If the leader of any other party had presided over such unremittingly awful council election results (and dire poll numbers) they would have been shown the door. Yet this party (or least its establishment) clings to Clegg with desperation bordering on la-la-la-cant-hear-you. And since he’s made it abundantly clear that he intends to lead the party into the next GE, we are on course for disaster, which might be avoided if two things happen:

    1) Clegg is deposed in favour of a new leader, Mr Timvince Cablefarron or whoever, and –
    2) the Coalition agreement to be renegotiated.

    Personally, I dont think the party has the stomach to support the demise of Clegg, and the Tories would probably baulk at any modifications which might put further limits on their freedom to be cruel to the disadvantaged,

    So oblivion it is then.

  • How short your memories are !

    Does no-one remember the “Valley Forge” days of 1988 and 1989 when our opinion poll ratings were within the statistical error of 0% ? Or the Euro elections of 1989 when we came Fourth in almost every seat in which we didn’t come Fifth ?

    Yes, we have been unfortunate to have the “opportunity” of being in a coalition during the worst financial crisis of most of our lifetimes – but perhaps that increases the obligation to engage in the process of sorting out the country’s economic problems. [And before anyone thinks about arguing that we should sign up to some Ballsian “Plan B” just remember that it would lead to the UK being in the same position as Greece – without the support of the Euro to help us. Where would interest rates, the exchange rate, oil prices, and inflation be ? – You, and certainly I, wouldn’t want to go there.]

    Coalition is hard. Constant carping from the press is frustrating. Depressed opinion poll ratings are – well – depressing. Losing hard-working local councillors really hurts. But we are on the right – or, at least, least worst, course and we have to see it through.

    Knock on a few doors and you will find that “real people” are far less hostile than you think.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 24th Jul '12 - 1:18pm

    Well said Maurice

  • @ Elizabeth Patterson

    I totally agree with you. The foul mouthed nature and abusive of Iain Martin’s recent articles is quite astonishing and shows quite how badly the Telegraph has degenerated. They are more desperate than ever to pillory Nick Clegg. Yet their desperation shows one thing – that they have actually run out of ammunition.

  • Tony Dawson 24th Jul '12 - 6:33pm


    “Knock on a few doors and you will find that “real people” are far less hostile than you think.”

    Ach so! Those dastardly pollster johnnies (all six of them!) are deliberately picking the wrong doors to knock on in order to produce those fiendish results of theirs! Or is Maurice perhaps knocking on doors in pre-selected offices in Whitehall?

    The good reception which I get when knocking on doors is because of what local Lib Dems do despite the actions of the Coalition. They largely support one aspect of the Coalition, and one action alone, which is the commitment to financial stability. Not that they don’t like some other Coalition actions when they are drawn to their attention: tax, banks and pensions, for example. Just that they have their own little list of negatives which tend to outweigh these items.

  • Mark Argent 26th Jul '12 - 1:35pm

    I don’t have much time. For the “blame Nick Clegg” game. Yes, we have had a few setbacks. Yes, we have not implement our manifesto as we might have. Done if we had been a government with an overall majority. Yes, there are tensions in the coalition.

    But, it is pretty amazing that the coalition. Is working as well as it is, Nick, and the Lib Dem parliamentarians deserve huge credit for this. We seem do have achieved a lot of what we might have wanted, which is impressive as we the minority in the coalition. With memories of the last Conservative government, and particularly its problems over Europe, I suspect our big unsung achievement has been to save the UK from the damage that could have been done by the right wing and eurosceptic factions in the Conservative party.

    After the next election, could we form a coalition with Labour? Could Nick Clegg go from being deputy prime minister in a Conservative-LibDem coalition to deputy prime minister in a Labour-LibDem one? Of course. That would be a persuasive argument for the viability of coalitions.

    In the rough-and-tumble of politics strong words have been exchanged between opposition and government. At the next election the three main parties will be exchanging strong words in campaigning against each other. One of the truly impressive aspects of the birth of the coalition was the speed with which strong words between Cnservatives and Lib Dems in the campaign moved into constructive negotiations on the birth of a coalition: there is no reason to believe the same can’t happen after a future election. And surely it is right that the party with the most seats gets the first chance to form a government. I suspect many of us would have favoured a Labour-LibDem coalition, but, even if the numbers had made it possible, a “rainbow coalition” of “everyone but the Tories” in order to keep the Tories out would have raised questions about why politicians were trying to keep the Tories out, when the electorate had returned more of them than of any other party.

    I think we have good reason to be proud of Nick Clegg, and all the LibDem parlimentarians.

  • Why does everybody assume that (a) there will be a need for a coalition, and (b) that we would want to be part of one anyway? After the experience of this parliament, it wouldn’t surprise me if we decided not to go in to a coalition, and Labour were able to build something with the support of the SNP (who by then will have lost the independence referendum and so will have nothing better to do) and maybe us on a “supply and confidence” basis.

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