Nick Clegg's comments on Radio 4 about the possibility of a coalition deal with Labour in 2015 are significant, not because the Deputy Prime Minister is airing the possibility of the Lib Dems striking a deal with the left rather than the right, but because of his shift in rhetoric. Clegg was perfectly clear in his 'No, no, no' speech at the party's 2013 autumn conference in Glasgow that the Lib Dems could do a deal with either party and would tone down the excesses of a Tory or Labour-led government. But his language back then annoyed some people. He said:
‘Labour would wreck the recovery. The Conservatives would give us the wrong kind of recovery.’
Labourites read that as Clegg being quite clear that his instinctive leaning was towards a Conservative government because it would be easier to steer someone towards the right kind of recovery than it would be to stop another party out-and-out wrecking it. In tonight's documentary, the Liberal Democrat leader says:
'I think they’ve changed. I think there’s nothing like the prospect of reality in an election to get politicians to think again and the Labour Party, which is a party unused to sharing power with others is realising that it might have to.'
He adds that 'there is just no doubt in my mind that if there were a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition, we the Liberal Democrats would absolutely insist that government would not break the bank'. That's hardly flirtatious: Clegg is still suggesting that Labour aren't much cop at accounting. But in saying that 'I think they've changed', and then describing the Conservatives as 'much more ideological' and returning 'to a lot of their familiar theme tunes', the DPM is preparing anyone listening, whether from inside his party or in the other parties, for the possibility that the Lib Dems could tack left after the next election if the arithmetic demands it. Of course, the interesting question is which way Clegg would jump if the 2015 result meant neither the Tories nor Labour were the largest party and it was therefore possible to form a coalition with either.
But there is something quite amusing about Clegg's criticism of the Conservatives in the documentary. He says:
'I think it would be best for everybody if the Conservative Party were to rediscover a talent for actually talking to mainstream voters about mainstream concerns.'
Some in Clegg's own party might wish the physician would heal himself on this matter: as I explained in November, the Lib Dems aren't aiming for mainstream voters at all: they're after a small and specific group of voters who don't always hold mainstream concerns.