Mr Clegg wants to remain in government. A minority Labour government should deny him that privilege
The Sunday Times magazine of 27 April 2014 carries a wonderfully illuminating interview with Nick Clegg, the leader of the LibDems and deputy prime minister in the Tory-led coalition government which no-one intentionally elected in 2010. The interview, by Anne McElvoy, public policy editor of The Economist, perhaps inadvertently makes a powerful case for Labour, if it wins more seats than anyone else in a hung parliament, to govern without a coalition with the LibDems or anyone else, ideally under a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement in which the LibDems, or any other party holding the balance of power in another hung parliament, would support the minority government in its budget legislation and in votes of confidence, but would be free to help to defeat it in the House of Commons on individual issues without such defeats requiring the government to resign. (This is a more accurate description of ‘confidence and supply’ than Ms McElvoy’s definition in her article.)
Because of the difficulty of reading this revealing article online, and because it includes such charmingly naive declarations of Mr Clegg’s earnest desire to go on being deputy prime minister, election after election, regardless of which of the bigger parties wins the most seats in the election, I am reproducing below extensive passages from Ms McElvoy’s pitiless deconstruction of Mr Clegg:
On the way up to [Nick Clegg’s] Sheffield seat, he wants to get something off his chest, which could well play a decisive role in the aftermath of the 2015 election, should no party emerge with a clear majority. In the event of a hung parliament ,which many pollsters consider likely, he says: “My party would not be interested in propping up a minority government without coalition. It isn’t a role I would see as right for myself or the Liberal Democrats.” …. In other words, the deputy PM will only settle for full coalition – which means he intends to remain in the job, if no party wins an overall majority in next May’s general election.
For the first time, Clegg is explicitly ruling out any kind of loose pact arrangement, like the short-lived Lib-Lab one in the 1970s or variants on “confidence and supply” arrangements, a political anoraks’ phrase., whereby a smaller party provides support in parliamentary votes for one of the main parties, but without any official deal on ministerial jobs or influence. No, says Clegg: if they want his party, they need to put up with coalition influence – and, by implication, him in a big role. “I want to remain in government. We’ve only just got started and a 10-year period for us in government means we could make a major contribution. The last thing I want to do is give up this job .”
It’s the kind of chutzpah that plays straight to his detractors’ view of Clegg as a self-aggrandising type. He says he objects to Labour and the Tories assuming that they have “a monopoly on power”. Lib Dems should be “a political force in the life of this county – not just a think-tank”. The charge that he is “power-hungry”, he adds, “tends to come from people with no qualms about seeking it for their own side”.
Ten years of Deputy Clegg is not a prospect that will gladden the hearts of Tories, who blame him for watering down Conservative rule. Meanwhile, seasoned Labour figures mutter that having seen Clegg hold his coalition partner hostage in some areas, a minority Labour government would be a better option than an alliance with Clegg if they fall just short of outright victory next May. Clegg snorts derisively that this is “swashbuckling stuff, but when it comes down to it a minority government would be unstable”. This may be true—but, unsurprisingly, the Tories and Labour deem it presumptuous that he assumes they can only make it work with him in tow.
…One of [Michael] Gove’s main advisers until his departure at the end of last year was the combative Dominic Cummings. He told the BBC’s World at One last month that Clegg’s plan to extend free school meals had been a chaotic policy, announced on the hoof, solely for political gain with his left-leaning base…. When I contact Cummings, he unleashes a far more personal attack. “Nick Clegg is the worst kind of modern MP,” he says via email. “He is self-obsessed, sanctimonious and so dishonest he finds the words truth and lies have ceased to have any objective meaning, and he treats taxpayers’ money with contempt. He won’t do the hard work to get policy right – all he cares about is his image. He is a revolting character. And I say that after spending 15 years at Westminster.”
As putdowns go, this must be a contender for the Malcolm Tucker memorial prize. “Whenever Clegg gave a speech, he’d demand that we spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money for his latest absurd gimmick,” Cummings continues. … “We thwarted Clegg as much as we could,” Cummings says cheerfully. “We ignored his appalling Home Affairs Committee which he abuses for his own personal ends. We kept the Free Schools process and exam reform out of his hands, so he couldn’t subvert them too.”
… It’s not a world [Nick Clegg] wants to give up. ”I’d very much like to continue in government,” he says emphatically, comparing coalition to a “fascinating laboratory” of mixed ideas. Ultimately, the random forces of the electorate will determine whether Clegg is a one-term deputy PM or a fixture in British politics: grumbled about, but tolerated.
Perhaps the men in grey sandals will get him first. If Clegg has one combination of assets that could save his skin, it is a mixture of self-belief and a stubborn refusal to give way. Coalition, he muses, “is full of bumps and scrapes”. He’s had more than a few of those – the Third Man of British politics, who wants to stick around. [Emphasis added.]
In the course of the article, Anne McElvoy usefully reminds us of the democratic credentials of this claimant to a permanent place in government for his party and permanent occupation of the post of deputy prime minister for himself:
[In the 2010 general election] the Lib Dems won 57 seats with 23% of the vote… Clegg’s poll ratings in mid-April  were between 9 and 11%, un-boosted by the publicity of two televised LBC debate clashes with Ukip’s Farage.
Mr Clegg is not by a long chalk the only UK politician who enjoys being a government minister and who would like to remain one for a long time, without the inconvenience of his party first needing to win a majority or plurality in the House of Commons at a general election. But his claim to be able to force whichever of the main parties wins the most seats in a hung parliament next year into a coalition with the LibDems under his leadership is a transparent bluff. First, there’s no guarantee that the LibDems, led by a deeply unpopular Nick Clegg and tarnished by five years propping up the most reactionary and incompetent Tory or Tory-led administration for a generation, will win enough seats in the new House of Commons to hold the balance of power and thus to be able to decide whether Ed Miliband or David Cameron gets the keys to Number 10 Downing Street. Secondly, if the LibDems do hold the balance of power in the 2015 election, the only sanction available to Mr Clegg against a refusal by a minority Labour or Tory government to include the LibDems in a new coalition will be to threaten to defeat the minority government on the floor of the House of Commons and to demand fresh elections. But there is no constitutional requirement that the Queen should agree to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections just because Mr Clegg wants her to. There might be another combination of parties able to command the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons without the cost and annoyance of another election soon after the first. Or, even if a dissolution and fresh elections are granted, there is every likelihood that the electorate, cross with the LibDems and (probably) the Tories for defeating Labour before it had had a chance to show how its manifesto promises would work, would desert them in droves and vote to give Labour an overall majority in the new parliament, in which the LibDems would at once revert to well deserved obscurity. Would Nick Clegg really be prepared to hold this gun to his own head and bravely pull the trigger?
Whatever Mr Clegg’s preference in the matter, much the best option for Labour as the biggest party in another hung parliament will be to carry out as much as it can of its election manifesto programme as a minority government, accepting defeat where necessary on some measures but pressing on regardless with the rest. A coalition with the LibDems, assuming that they had enough seats to make up a majority in the House, would be constantly paralysed by LibDem refusal to accept the reversal of the reactionary and counter-productive coalition policies and laws of which they have been joint sponsors during the years of the present Conservative-led coalition government. Progressive Labour policies would have to be repeatedly watered down to satisfy LibDem objections in a string of unsatisfactory horse trades. A Labour minority government would be well placed to dare the opposition parties to frustrate a progressive and potentially popular programme: if they did, they could expect to pay a heavy electoral price when it became clear that the business of government could not be effectively carried out and that the only escape from deadlock would be a dissolution and an early second election. In such an election the electorate might, with luck, be relied on to punish the opposition parties for frustrating necessary Labour measures and for wishing on it another wearisome and unnecessary election, from which Labour could reasonably hope to emerge this time with an overall majority.
So a Labour minority government and resistance to demands for another coalition are clearly Labour’s least bad option if Labour wins the most seats in another hung parliament. Mr Clegg would miss his ministerial car and driver, his red boxes and his seat on the government front bench. If so, tough.
 Footnote: I assume for the sake of argument that David Cameron will still be leader of the Conservative party in May 2015 when the next general election is due to take place. However, if Scotland votes for independence in September 2014, it’s difficult to see how a prime minister who will have presided over the dissolution of the United Kingdom as a direct result of his personal complacency, ignorance, failure of judgement and incompetence could remain in office for another eight fraught post-referendum months. In such circumstances Mr Cameron’s resignation would seem inevitable. When the prime minister resigns, the rest of the government automatically resigns with him, although it doesn’t necessarily follow that there is a new general election for a new government. In that case would George Osborne or Boris Johnson have replaced Mr Cameron as prime minister by May of next year? Or would Ed Miliband have moved into Number 10 following the resignation of the Cameron-Clegg coalition and a fresh general election in October or November of 2014? That question goes well beyond the scope of this post, and is not directly relevant to its argument. But it certainly deserves to be discussed and debated nevertheless, and with some urgency — elsewhere.
I hasten to make it clear that I would emphatically not regard the loss of Scotland as a price worth paying for the collapse of the Cameron-Clegg coalition eight months earlier than scheduled, much as I would welcome the latter. Scottish secession would be a catastrophe for Britain (and probably, although not necessarily, for Scotland). Another eight months of the Tory-led coalition after the referendum would be a heavy burden, but Britain would survive it, and even recover from it eventually.
Uopdate (8 May 2014): A lively debate on the main issues discussed here is going on in comments on a shortened version of this post on LabourList: see http://bit.ly/1jkkfTT.