Nick Clegg may have rebuffed Gordon Brown’s advances during the great debate, but the Labour leadership is not giving up on the possibility of a post-election pact to keep the party in government after May 6.
Andrew Adonis was first out after the debate with an effort to keep alive the flame of romance. Mr Clegg, Lord Adonis told BBC Radio 4, may be playing hard to get for purpose of the campaign, but on all the big issues the Lib Dems are much closer to Labour than to the Conservatives. Whether it’s tax, political reform or fairness, the two parties of the centre-left are on the side of the progressives.
Lord Adonis is by no means a lone voice. Peter Mandelson has been saying much the same thing; and Mr Brown, I am told, is certainly prepared to countenance a coalition government if that is the only way to keep out Mr Cameron. I am not sure about Vince Cable as chancellor, but what about Mr Clegg as foreign, or if he would prefer, home secretary?
The raw political calculation here is that a post-debate surge in Lib Dem support would be far more damaging to Mr Cameron’s electoral prospects than to Labour. Sure, there are perhaps a dozen seats where the Lib Dems are mounting a serious challenge to the Labour candidate. But the more important contests are those where Mr Clegg is seeking to hold off a Tory advance. Mr Cameron will find it very difficult to secure a majority unless he can take 15 or so seats from the Lib Dems.
So what about Mr Clegg’s own preferences. The insider view is that he is intellectually closer to Big Society Conservatism that to Mr Brown’s statism. After all, the Lib Dem leader flirted with the idea of joining the Tories before signing up to the Lib Dems. There is something in this, though it is often exaggerated.
It ignores, though, the political dynamics. In the event of a hung parliament, the decision will not be Mr Clegg’s alone. The pro-pact Labourites calculate – rightly – that most Lib Dems, including the party’s MPs – are temperamentally closer to Labour. More importantly, would they allow their leader to turn down the offer of a referendum on changing the Westminster voting system?
The Alternative Vote system offered by Mr Brown is scarcely proportional. But it would entrench Lib Dem incumbency in almost all the seats where it is fighting the Conservatives, and offer better prospects elsewhere.
A post-election pact, of course, may yet prove to be campaign fantasy. But Mr Brown is a persistent suitor; and if the polls narrow further, watch this space.