Like I suppose most of you reading this, I’m feeling a bit depressed tonight. Awful as New Labour has been in many ways, the return of Tory government will do that to you. I’ll reflect on the Tories when I’m feeling a bit less dyspeptic. What I will say tonight is, I hope all those lefties who fell for Cleggmania and have spent the last three or four weeks boosting the Fib Dims are feeling a bit silly now. Because anyone who was paying attention could have seen this coming.
Yes, you know who you are. You let your enthusiasm run away with you. You wanted to believe we were still in 2005, with that nice antiwar Charlie Kennedy taking a stance to the left of Labour. You didn’t think the Orange Book was of any importance. You assumed they were a left-liberal party, even as they said they were a liberal party. You dismissed out of hand the suggestion that Nick Clegg was basically a dispositional Tory who couldn’t exist in the Tory Party purely because of its stance on Europe. You found that nice Vince Cable so reassuring, at least if you just listened to his soothing voice and didn’t pay too much attention to what he was saying. You were impressed by Evan Harris, with his groovy ideas about euthanasia and libel reform. And didn’t they look fresh and shiny and new?
It was so easy, wasn’t it, to see the Lib Dems as you wanted them. All you needed to know was that they weren’t the other two. If you were of a left-liberal disposition, it was so tempting to envision the Lib Dems as being like Labour only better – without the war and authoritarianism, without the dreadful Gordon Brown and all his grey placemen, without those boring trade unions – but new and hip and young, like Labour only without the disadvantages. And even as Cleggy signalled for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that he was going to go with the Tories, you could allow yourself – just for a few days – to dream of the progressive majority. Well, we all make errors of judgement. When you’re finished shouting at the TV, you should take a deep breath, put the kettle on and think things over.
Meanwhile, let’s just ponder something. What we can look forward to, and (though God knows I don’t credit the Labour leadership with any initiative) what might make things interesting, is the inevitable Lib Dem civil war. David Alton may be yesterday’s man, but he has been a sharp observer of Liberal politics for a very long time and his thoughts are worth pondering. On a more prosaic level, even if Clegg can keep his fractious MPs in line, he’s got his party activists to think about – and beyond them, the voters.
There’s a basic psephological point here. The Lib Dems benefit a lot from tactical voting, as we know. Since they failed to make the much-anticipated breakthrough against Labour in the northern cities, their MPs tend to sit for rural and suburban constituencies in the south. Their main rivals in those seats are the Tories; twice as many Lib Dem MPs have a Tory as their nearest challenger as a Labourite. They benefit rather a lot from squeezing Labour votes on the basis that they are the best-placed anti-Tory candidates. So, how easy will fighting elections on an anti-Tory basis be now? And that’s without considering Simon Hughes or Sarah Teather, who have held off Labour challenges on the basis of positioning themselves to Labour’s left. Hughes’ seat is safe, but I fear wee Sarah may be toast.
One thing about the maths. The Lib Dems hold 57 seats in the Commons. If we take majorities of less than 10% – which is to say seats that would be vulnerable on a 5% swing – as being marginal, that encompasses a full 27 of those 57, and some of those majorities are very small indeed. If pissed-off Lib Dem voters decamp to Labour or the Greens in any numbers – or if some choose to vote real Tory rather than ersatz Tory – then Cleggy had better hope that he gets PR as part of the deal. With PR, he could lose half his votes and come out ahead in terms of seats. Without PR, the Lib Dems could be Donald Ducked in a very serious way.
And oh yes, he’d better hope that law on fixed-term parliaments is rushed through quickly, for if I was Nick Clegg I wouldn’t want to be facing my voters any time soon.