I am baffled. Even before the votes have been cast Nick Clegg seems intent on throwing away his best negotiating cards in the event that Britain wakes up on Friday to a hung Parliament. The Lib Dem leader does not seem to realise that the conditions he has been setting down before polling day would rob him of any leverage after the votes have been counted.
Mr Clegg’s pitch to the voters in this election has been: “Here’s your opportunity to break the system. Vote Lib Dem and you can smash the duopoly that has dominated British politics since the early 1920s.” It’s an appealing message to a disgruntled electorate, as the third party’s surge in the opinion polls testifies. If the weekend polls were to be replicated on May 6, Mr Clegg might indeed end up with a bigger share of the popular vote than the embattled Gordon Brown, and the overall result would be inconclusive.
According to UKpollingreport the Conservatives would win with the biggest share of the vote (around 35 per cent) and the largest number of seats (somewhere between 270 and 310) but David Cameron would be short of the 326 seats he needs for an overall majority.
If that turns about to the case, what Mr Clegg says on Friday morning will be critical to the shape of the government that follows. The Lib Dem leader’s present position is that in such circumstances he would refuse to talk to Gordon Brown about the possibility of a Lib-Lab pact, even if the two parties could together command a majority. Mr Clegg says his first conversation would be with Mr Cameron, even though the Tory leader has made it clear that he would not pay the price of a change in the electoral system.
This is where Mr Clegg seems to be woefully unaware of the constitutional proprieties.
These state that in the event of a hung Parliament, Mr Brown, as the sitting prime minister, would be given the first opportunity to attempt to form a government even his party had fewer seats than the Tories. Only if he failed would Mr Cameron be asked by the Queen to form a Tory administration – with or without an overall majority.
In these circumstances were Mr Clegg to repeat on Friday morning that he intended to shun the prime minister and talk to the Conservatives, Mr Brown would be obliged to resign immediately. Mr Cameron would be summonened to the Palace and would be prime minister by Friday afternoon, regardless of anything Mr Clegg had to say.
It would then entirely up to the Tory leader whether to talk to the Lib Dems before the Queen’s Speech on May 25 or whether to dare Mr Clegg to try to vote the new administration down. The Lib Dems in other words would have lost all leverage, since forcing a second election would be to risk a backlash from the voters.
By contrast, by stating that he was ready to talk to both party leaders with a view to a coalition or other electoral arrangement Mr Clegg would keep his bargaining chips. Mr Brown would remain in No 10 while talks were under way, putting pressure on Mr Cameron to match any offer to the Lib Dems from Labour.
A final thought. Mr Clegg seems to think that it is incumbent on the third party to give the largest party the first chance of forming a government, regardless of the closeness or otherwise of its policies to those of the Lib Dems. If he looked at what happens in the rest of Europe he would realise that coalition politics doesn’t normally work like that. What matters is not the electoral score of individual parties but the support garnered collectively by the parties that form a government.
Mr Clegg would do well in these final few days to think before he speaks, though all this, of course, will be irrelevant if Mr Cameron secures, as his colleagues suggest he will, an overall majority.