Alex Massie

The Blundering Parties

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The biggest blunderer today was, I think, Nick Clegg but one can make a case arguing that each of the parties played their hand badly on Monday.

Oh, sure, in one sense Labour must be enjoying this: Tories in a fury, Liberals suddenly interested again and, who knows, perhaps there's a faint glimmer of hope that something may yet arrive to rescue the party and keep it in office. But Labour's good mood reflects a short-term tactical stroke, not a strategic victory. Gordon might have wrong-footed the Tories today and damaged prospects for a Tory-Liberal arrangement but that's it.

Labour's overall position had not, I suspect, improved greatly not least because, despite all the talk and the hype, it remains difficult to see quite how they really can push through a deal. Technically the numbers are just about there if, but only if, all the little boats join the flotilla. But it's hard to see what purpose such a government could serve beyond trying to push through a bill changing the voting system in advance of another general election. And passing that kind of bill will be extremely difficult.

Nor can it possibly make any real sense for the Liberals to negotiate a programme for government without their knowing who is going to be Prime Minister once the Labour leadership contest finishes after the summer recess. (Paranoid thought: there'll be a new Labour leader but Gordon will remain as Prime Minister! Surely not...)

So Labour's triumph today - and let us accept that it is a victory of sorts - seems futile and may, in the end, be seen as a rather juvenile act designed to thwart rather than advance progress towards building a government. It may not play out like that but there seems a chance it will and for all that BBC presenters ignored all manner of constitutional niceties yesterday it is the case that plenty of people, not all of them Tories or, like John Reid, Gordon-haters, will think that there's something rather off and not quite on about the way Labour behaved on Monday.

You could tell the weakness of the Labour case by the feebleness of the talking points their people were armed with: sure, the Labour-Liberal combined vote is just over 50% and sure, combined, the parties won more votes than the Tories. But they didn't win as great a share of the vote as a Tory-Liberal combo nor as many votes either, did they?

But it was striking to see them all repeat this argument and telling too. Because it revealed something about the Labour psyche: they really don't think the Liberal Democrats are a real party at all. Rather they're Labour's confused little brother. Superficialy different but really just the same and, most importantly, always under Labour's protection.

If Liberal Democrats think they'll achieve much in a Labour-controlled ministry they are, I'm afraid, kidding themselves. True, Labour never cared for sharing power with the Lib Dems at Holyrood and there was much grousing about their junior partners but I'm struggling to remember a single significant liberal achievement in their eight years in power.

Still, Clegg was the real loser and not just because the longer these shenanigans endure so more people may find the idea of electoral reform less palatable than they might have thought just a week ago.

Worse for Clegg, he looks conniving and duplicitous. You cannot credibly say "I think the Conservatives have the first right to govern..." and then open formal negotiations with the Labour party while you're also conducting formal negotiations with the Conservatives. It's one thing to keep Labour to keep Labour abreast of developments, quite another to be seen to be trying to play the parties off against one another.

If talks with the Tories break down then, sure, go and see what Labour have to offer. But wait for the first set of talks to fail. This kind of multi-room negotiation during which only the Lib Dems know what is going on does not seem likely to impress the average punter. And all for a cause - electoral reform - that whatever it's merits is a sideshow compared with the task of repairing the public finances and reforming public services.

If Clegg was bounced into this by his own recalcitrant backbenchers then this too makes him look weak and held captive by the most reactionary forces in his own party. That's not so good either. Anyway you look at it, I think, Clegg seems a smaller politician today than he did three weeks ago.

If this was just a ploy to persuade the Tories to up their offer then fine, Clegg has achieved that. But at some cost to his reputation and that of his party and, for that matter, to the stability of any deal he may yet make with the Conservatives.

As for the Tories, well, Cameron has been remarkably calm. At present if there's no Tory-Liberal deal then it seems as though the party will not hold him responsible, preferring to train their guns on the Lib Dems and Labour. Nevertheless one does wonder if he really had to offer a referendum? Maybe he did but it was unfortunate that it seemed as though Cameron was reacting to Lib Dem demands rather than anticipating them. Some Tories, I suspect, wonder what part of the family silver he will sell next to get a deal, any deal.

Then again, perhaps the Tory leader is playing a longer, subtler game. All this positioning and manoevering today wasn't so much about what happens this week or even in the next few months. Every part of it had an eye on the next election. And in that contest at least I'd argue that the Lib Dems are now in both a weaker position than they were on Friday and a tougher one than they needed to be.

A new politics led by the refreshing change of the Lib Dems? I fancy fewer people will buy that sauce today than would have last week.

Nevertheless, while unamused, the Tories may still feel that a Tory-Liberal arrangment is still the most likely outcome. Just not as likely as it seemed a couple of days ago...