I am not surprised that Paddy Ashdown says the Liberal Democrats cannot work with the Conservatives. He would say that wouldn't he? After all, Ashdown came close to selling his party to New Labour, lock, stock and barrel.
Nevertheless, the idea that the Tories and Liberals cannot work together (though doggedly contested by this blog and a few others) is by now Westminster's latest piece of Conventional Wisdom*. I doubt that Andrew Neil likes to think of himself as a purveyor of the CW but there you have it: even he thinks a Con-Lib arrangement highly improbable.
Guido thinks differently and so do I. True, Nick Clegg would need to secure the agreement of his party before making any deal with Cameron and true too that this is usually seen as a major obstacle. However Clegg has already begun the business of burying Labour which itself opens the door towards either a formal or informal arrangement with the Conservatives. The latter strikes me as being preferable, not least since the Orange Bookers could be useful in keeping the Tories honest.
Sure the sandal-wearing georgraphy teachers that make up much of the Lib Dems' membership might be unhappy with any Tory-Liberal deal but their voices are not the only ones Clegg needs to listen to. Whereas a poll last year found Lib Dem councillors preferring a deal with Labour by a two to one margin an ICM poll conducted in August 2009 reported that 61% of those people who voted Lib Dem in 2005 prefer to deal with the Tories and just 26% would rather sleep with Labour.
Perhaps those numbers are now out of date but I see no reason why Labour's charms should have grown more alluring since last summer. Quite the contrary in fact.
Clegg should be able to go to his party and make a decent case that having delivered the Liberals' best result in 80 years he and his judgement should be backed and, furthermore, the mood of the country as a whole and the opinions of the people who voted Lib Dem should be considered important enough to trump the petty indulgences of Liberal Democrat activists and other loons. A general rule: when choosing between screwing the public and screwing the base, successful political parties screw the base.
Power is a tempting thing and it takes a strange kind of politician and party to turn it down. Why should anyone take the Lib Dems seriously if given the chance to govern they decide they'd rather, actually, you know, decline that opportunity?
Depsite the difficulties the argument for a formal coalition, rather than an unofficial arrangement, remains strong. The hurdles are not insurmountable and many more improbable and bizarre coalitions have been formed in other jurisdictions. Don't believe people who say it can't happen. It can.
*An exception: Matt d'Ancona's thoroughly sensible column on the subject.