With only a few weeks to go before the general election, all the parties are undertaking difficult balancing acts. Whilst outwardly the main parties are toeing the line that they are working towards winning a parliamentary majority, this is now looking unlikely. The question now is not so much whether or not we’ll have a hung parliament after the next election, but whether it will hang to the left or the right (so to speak). With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that the parties are treading carefully with their policy announcements, one eye firmly on how their positions tally with those of their prospective bed-fellows come May.
This task is particularly difficult for the Liberal Democrats. Assuming that the party does not lose the vast majority of its seats at the election (which I do not think they will), they are likely to remain the third biggest party in the Commons and are therefore highly likely to be called into coalition negotiations by either Labour or the Tories (or potentially both).
Given this, the fact that the party has largely kept its powder dry until now is understandable. It has made few commitments in terms of its ‘red lines’ come negotiation time, and those that it has made, such as additional funding for mental health services, are pretty uncontroversial. The party has even left itself wriggle room on the EU referendum, in case it should find itself in another partnership with the Conservatives.
Clegg and his team have made some other vague promises around the ECHR, the Snooper’s Charter, and the balance between tax and spend that they would want to see adhered to by any party it was in coalition with, but, other than that, have remained largely silent on policy positions. David Laws, a member of the negotiating team in 2010 and confirmed to be making a reappearance should the Lib Dems be in negotiation talks in May, has said that the question of the party’s leadership will not be on the negotiating table. This may prove an awkward position should they be negotiating with Labour because 1) Labour rumours suggest that Nick Clegg’s head might be the price for a Lib-Lab partnership and 2) Gordon Brown’s resignation was a demand made by the Lib Dems during their last round of negotiations. If tit-for-tat politicking comes into play during discussions then Nick Clegg may come to regret the hard line he took in 2010.
So which way are the Liberal Democrats likely to jump? We know that they have committed to entering negotiations with the party with the largest number of seats in parliament. However, that doesn’t mean that the party is committed to entering into a partnership (either a full coalition or a confidence and supply arrangement) with that party should they believe they can get a better deal elsewhere. I suspect that the Lib Dems will not take such a puritanical approach to negotiations this time round. The degree to which their partnership with the Conservatives eroded their popular support has demonstrated that a political party ignores the survival of itself at its own peril. The Rose Garden agreement exemplified a political naivety that I suspect we won’t see from the Lib Dems this time around. David Laws and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander will both be returning to the negotiating table for a reprise of their 2010 performance. Expect them to bring this experience to bear and come out with some commitments that demonstrate a new, more pragmatic approach to negotiations.