Sunder Katwala is not convinced by Nick Boles' suggestion that the coalition should fight the next election on a joint-ticket. He sniffs a Tory ploy:
What [Boles] is offering the Liberal Democrats is simply the chance to lash themselves to the mast of the Coalition's austerity agenda - and to collude in an attempt to keep it going even if the voters don't want it - with little in return beyond losing their political identity to become a semi-permanent National Liberal wing of a new Tory-dominated alliance.
The coalition has worked so far because it has caught into the zeitgeist that disdains tribalism and looks to politicians to work together in the national interest. If we believe in the transformative power of the coalition for five years, then surely we must at least consider the potential of campaigning strongly on its record as coalition partners. We should consider campaigning on the factors that our two parties have in common. The last thing we should be doing is ruling out this fascinating idea out of hand.
1. The Tories win an overall majority and govern alone.
Of these, I have to say that 6 seems the most unlikely outcome. This year Clegg suggested that in the event of a hung parliament he'd talk first to whichever party won the most votes or seats since they would have the greatest legitimacy. But that was then and the situation will be different at the next election. In 2010 the Lib Dems were camped on the hill watching the battle unfold on the plain beneath them. Next time they'll be fighting in the battle and no longer be in a position to act as "impartial" observers happy to cut a deal with whoever prevails in the main event.
Nor, one hopes, will the country be in such a mess that the Lib Dems could justify a deal with Labour on the grounds that the country really needs strong and stable government. If that's the case then the coalition will have failed and, frankly, the case for including the Lib Dems in government will necessarily be weaker.
Technically, of course, there's nothing to prevent the Liberals from campaigning against Labour in April and governing with them in May. Politically, however, it will be difficult to finesse that one and, in the end, I suspect it invites a hammering at the subsequent election (even though, as discussed here before, the Lib Dem vote is pretty resilient in key constituencies). Nor will the Lib Dems get much of a deal from a Labour party that won't have forgiven them for 2010.
In poker terms the Lib Dems are pot-committed. They cannot fold their hand and must play it to the end even though this may have disastrous consequences.
No, the interesting election outcomes are 2 and 4. In these hypotheticals, one can imagine that Clegg would be happy to continue in power but that his MPs might be wary of the Tory scorpion. Sooner or later it will bite you because that's what scorpions do. Better the safety of the opposition benches than the dangers of government.
So the Lib Dems could rule out doing a deal with either party after the next election. But then what would be the point of voting for them?
Cameron's daring and generous offer to the Lib Dems has, you see, changed British politics for years to come. If hung parliaments become more common (they may not) he's killed the notion that a Labour-Liberal alliance is the only feasible coalition and by tying the Liberals to the Tory mast he's ensured, I think, that there won't be a Labour-Liberal coalition until at least 2020.
Of course Labour could win an overall majority at the next election which would render much of this moot but if no-one wins a majority in 2015 then what matters is not whether Labour has more seats than the Tories but whether Labour win more seats than the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Whether either party likes it or not, they're together now and are stuck with one another until after the votes are counted next time.
Which is why I think there may well be some quiet arrangement in 2015 even if it's not anounced as a formal "pact". Not least because the voters will act as if there is a formal arrangment between the parties even if there isn't any such deal. They'll vote for or against the government so the government might as well stand and fight together rather than divide its forces and invite disaster.