Lets look back over the events of today:
– Talks with the Conservatives were going along OK, but some of their backbenchers were grumbling, and our party was evidently very iffy about signing up to anything which achieved no advance on electoral reform. There had been reports of some meetings going on between ourselves and the Labour party.
– Our own meeting of the parliamentary party made it clear to the negotiating team that they weren’t very happy with the offers on the table so far.
-David Laws gave a rather odd statement, in which he seemed not to say a whole lot.
-The BBC reported that there was some suggestion 10 Downing Street might be making a statement, and it was, somewhat bizarrely, suggested that whether they did or not depended on a careful analysis of what David Laws said.
-A statement was indeed forthcoming, with Gordon Brown announcing an opening of negotiations with Nick Clegg. Curiously enough, it was timed just before David Cameron was known to be meeting with his shadow cabinet and then later his backbenchers.
-Nick Clegg makes a statement, quite soon afterwards, confirming this.
-What had looked like a tricky meeting for David Cameron comes out with a result that he will concede a referendum on PR, which, presumably, a few hours ago was not even part of what he was going to try to sell to his MPs.
So, the conspiracy-theorist in me suspects that Labour and Clegg have managed to time an announcement at about the right time to focus the minds of the Conservatives when they were meeting, and screw a bit more out of them.
Good. It might seem cynical of us, but since we have such a crappy deal under an electoral system which is stacked against us, I think we can be forgiven for levering absolutely anything we can from a hung parliament when one comes along. We do, however, have to think about the perceptions of this. As Jennie points out, people will now assume we’re ditching talks with the Tories unless something comes forward pretty soon.
The game Clegg has been playing is striking a fine balance between screwing as much out of Cameron as he possibly can, and being seen to act in his own interest and not that of the country. I think he has strung this out about as long as he can afford to if he doesn’t want to consign the party to such unpopularity it might well not recover from it. I don’t intend that as a criticism, by the way; a hung parliament is such an unusual opportunity for us that he would have been wrong not to give the negotiations all he can.
The question is, has he now got something on the table that’s worth the headache? Lets assume, as most of the political world does, that a Lab-Lib deal is not really a viable option, for the simple reason that the seats don’t stack up. What this leaves us with is the conclusion that Clegg has to go with the Conservatives sooner or later. In today’s announcement from Brown, he has managed to flush out a better deal than was on the table before. He has to take this or leave it now, and if he leaves it, we remain out of power, with no referendum on AV, and minimal influence over Conservative policy.
But he hasn’t got PR, so has he got enough?
It’s a hard question, but I think, at the end of the day, that if he continues to play games with this tomorrow, we will go past the point where that balance between getting a good deal and being seen to pursue self-interest flips, and he starts to do massive damage to the party. I’m sure Nick knows this. So, if he carries on doing as well as I think he’s done so far, I predict that tomorrow will see the sealing of a deal for the only viable coalition on the table, the newly upgraded Con-LabLib coalition deal. If so, I would support it. Of course I want STV, but having got this far in the hung parliament talks we would be set back at the next general election, with little to show for it, if we don’t take it.