An important meeting of Lib Dem MPs last night. Opinion has hardened in a number of areas:
Vince made his first intervention – in favour of the Tories So far Cable has kept his powder dry. He’s a former Labour man. But last night he acknowledged that those arguing for a Tory deal were probably right. (There was a wise crack about feeling he was being “set up” to wield the public spending axe.) As a senior figure representing the old-SDP wing, this is a significant development.
Labour need to make a much better offer There was some surprise at both the tenor and the substance of the negotiations with Labour. While Mandelson and Adonis seemed mustard keen on a deal, the others, particularly Balls and Miliband, showed much less enthusiasm. Whether on electoral reform or policy, the first formal meeting suggested they were well short of the Lib Dem policy shopping list. Danny Alexander and David Laws both conveyed this message to the meeting. The MPs demanded to hear if the other two negotiators agreed — and they did. Today’s Labour meeting will be crucial but there is a mountain to climb.
Opinion hardened towards backing a Tory deal There are powerful and senior figures in the party singing the praises of a Lib-Lab deal. It is a faction — including all the former leaders — that can’t quite resist the opportunity to realise Jo Grimond’s dream of a uniting Britain’s progressive forces. But the younger generation are less convinced. All of them would be more comfortable with a Labour deal. But there are worries about legitimacy, about Labour’s ability to deliver, about the good faith of Labour’s Medusa-like leadership. The middle ground is to explore all avenues with Labour. But the mood is with a Tory deal.
It is coalition or nothing This is the most sudden shift. Last night hardly anyone spoke up for the merits of a “confidence and supply” deal, which had been the pre-election favourite from Clegg’s team down. It is “in for a penny in for a pound”. There is an understandable sensitivity to appearing impotent — the MPs suffer being teased on a daily basis about a vote for the party being wasted. Some of them have had enough of long internal debates about Lib Dem policies that never see the light of day. They think most power is exercised by ministers in day-to-day decisions, rather than legislation. The danger is that no one notices what influence the junior partner brings to bear in a coalition.
There’s likely to be a special conference There is a joint meeting of the Federal Executive and parliamentary party later today. If nine committee members or 15 MPs oppose the deal, then there needs to be a two-thirds majority of the Special Conference of delegates, which is likely to be held this weekend. If Clegg wins backing from his MPs and the Fed, then he won’t need anything else. But there’s likely to be a special conference anyway, to bind in the party. The key point is that it would only need a simple majority — meaning the deal is likely to sail through.