Negotiators struggling with a marriage of convenience
A new figure made his debut on the political stage yesterday: ‘David Clegg’.
It was a slip of the tongue by Henry McLeish, Labour's former first minister in Scotland, as he spoke about David Cameron and Nick Clegg, but it summed up the confusing world of the new politics after last week's election.
Forging a marriage of convenience between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is not proving easy as negotiations on their prenuptial agreement continue. It could yet be called off before they reach the altar out of fear that it would end in a messy divorce. That is one reason why some figures in both parties believe a fully fledged coalition with senior Liberal Democrats sitting in a Tory cabinet is less likely than an arrangement under which Mr Clegg's MPs would support (or not oppose) a minority Tory government in key Commons votes.
Even if the Lib-Con negotiators reach a deal, MPs in both parties fear trouble ahead. A significant number of Tory MPs will not feel comfortable with getting into bed with the Liberal Democrats and the feeling is mutual.
While the Tories' deep-seated hostility to electoral reform is seen as the most likely deal-breaker, it is not the only problem. The central issue facing the new government, the economy, may also prove a stumbling block and was central to yesterday's marathon negotiations at the Cabinet Office.
There are limited areas of agreement on regulating the banks and curbing tax credits and child trust funds. Some Tory tax proposals opposed by the Liberal Democrats could be kicked into the long grass; cutting inheritance tax and rewarding marriage in tax system were in any event likely to be delayed until later in the parliament due to the lack of money.
The blunt truth is that the Liberal Democrats have much more in common with Labour than the Tories — on the economy, Europe and constitutional reform.
Cabinet ministers have not given up hope that the Lib-Con talks will collapse and that Labour can yet forge an agreement with Mr Clegg. For a Lib-Lab pact to happen, Mr Brown would need to make the ultimate sacrifice and give Mr Clegg a timetable for his own departure. His legacy would be the “progressive alliance” which he saw as his best hope of survival, but he would not be around to implement it.