The arrival of Nick Clegg in his ministerial car in Downing St yesterday morning was a scene I never thought I would see happen. But there it was: Nick sweeping into Downing St as Deputy Prime Minister as part of a coalition government. Though I have spent the past three years, since Brown became PM, predicting that no one would win the general election with a majority, and that Brown would continue as Labour leader until defeated in the general election, I never contemplated what would happen once people had delivered their verdict at the polls. And when the result of a hung Parliament was announced, I had no idea before David Cameron made his offer last Friday to the Lib Dems, what shape the government would take.
Before polling day, my instincts would have told me that the Conservative talk of change and new politics was all talk to capitalize on the mood of the nation. I thought they were only interested in the old politics of majority government and that they were hiding it under a veneer of pro-change spin.
It would have been easy for Cameron to refuse to make an offer and then rule as a minority government for a few months during which time there would have been uncertainty in the markets and a growing clamour by the people of Britain for a strong government with a majority. Another election later this year or early next year would have been the result and the Conservatives almost certainly would have romped through to a large majority. They could have pointed to the indecisiveness of the previous months and the economic chaos as a living example, as they saw it, of the consequences of change to the way voting is conducted. The chances are, the Lib Dems would have been crushed. And Labour would probably have been crushed again as well as people stampede for the safety of a Conservative majority.
The Conservatives instead chose to discard the advantage they had of completely undermining the Lib Dems, and instead made an offer that saw them move a massive distance into the centre ground to form a liberal (with a small “L”) government. The concessions offered to us have been enormous. And most importantly, they have given us an opportunity to show that coalition, the almost inevitable outcome of a fairer voting system as preached by ourselves, can work.
The concessions offered to the Lib Dems have been staggering: a fairer tax system, replacement of the Lords, more powers to the devolved nations, a referendum on AV, scrapping ID cards, kicking inheritance tax plans into the long grass, fixed term parliaments and so on. This is serious stuff. The Conservative leadership at least has moved significantly, but not just on policy. It is on outlook as well. Instead of viewing coalition, pluralism and co-operation across parties as a vile disease that needs to be stamped out, they have accepted it as the basis for government. I simply am staggered at what has been achieved.
There will be those who say I am looking at this through rose-tinted spectacles. My response to them is look again at what Cameron and his Conservative team has done. They have abandoned the opportunity of a majority, single party government that would have come their way within the next 12 months and have opted for something completely different. Conservative grassroots may feel angry as their culture has been one of single party governments but the Conservative leadership have now shackled themselves to a new system which, if it fails, will mean they have failed as well. I believe there is now a genuine willingness to make this work at the top of both coalition parties. And I think we now have a major opportunity to show to the country that the new politics of co-operation in government can work.
Compare that to the Labour position. They offered very little in the talks the Lib Dems held with them. It seems that Labour had the view that all they had to do was demand the Lib Dems accept the Labour manifesto. No joint programme, no compromises, no accepting of the other side’s views and aims. It seems Labour went into the negotiations with some of the negotiators at best only half-hearted about the prospect of a deal. I always felt the prospect of a deal with Labour was an outside chance anyway. It was right to explore it but too many of the Labour side wanted nothing to do with it. The reactionaries on the Labour backbenches would have destroyed any Lib Dem/Labour coalition in no time at all. Whilst some such as Mandelson and (until Monday) Brown wanted to cling on til the last moment in the hope that something could be put together, too many Labour MPs want to be in opposition. We will need to remind people of that when Labour shouts their inevitable claim that the Lib Dems put the Conservatives into office.
The very limited likelihood of a Lib Dem/Labour deal makes it all the more remarkable that the Conservatives were prepared to offer so much to form a coalition. They knew that we had virtually no where else to go. In a sense, our negotiating position was not as strong at it sometimes seemed. And it brings me again to the conclusion that the Conservatives at the top have made a genuine shift that I never previously thought they would make. Whilst it may leave many Conservative grassroots wondering why they ever bothered, Cameron can take considerable credit for what he has done.