Amidst all the Jubilee-related snark this long weekend, something caught my eye on Twitter and made me think:

@dontgetfooled If there was a “national interest” argumt for LibDems to coalesce w/ Cameron in 2010 might there be not an equally good one now to quit?

It’s an important question, and one I think Liberal Democrats need to think about and come up with an answer. Even if you say that no, there isn’t a national interest argument for doing that now, then under what circumstances would you consider that there’s a reason for ending the coalition?

Back in 2010, I was at the Special Conference in Birmingham, and I voted for the coalition then. As I said at the time, I think this was a case of the Liberal Democrats finding the least worst option of the various that were being presented at the time. The question we should be asking now is what’s the best – or perhaps again, least worst – option available?

As I see it, there are three broad options available. There’s lots of changeable details within all of them, but it’s simpler to group them into three:

1) Continue in the coalition until 2015. There’s some scope for renegotiation and changing paths within this, especially with Cameron supposedly considering a post-Olympic ministerial reshuffle. The key question that needs to be answered about this option is what will the Government do over the next three years? What changes and reforms will it make that deliver what’s in the national interest, and how will the Liberal Democrats get our key policies delivered in that period? Indeed, give that people boast about how we’ve delivered our four key manifesto promises, what’s left for the Liberal Democrats to do in government, and can it be achieved over those three years?

2) Renegotiate the Coalition as a confidence and supply deal. This goes back to one of the options that wasn’t as credible in 2010 because of the prospect of Cameron cutting and running for a second election after a short time. However, with the passage of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, a confidence and supply deal could now be negotiated. The question then would be what concessions Liberal Democrats could secure while being out of Government but supporting it? What would a minority Conservative Government do that the coalition wouldn’t or couldn’t?

3) Withdraw from the Government, and vote it down with the aim of forcing an early General Election. This is the nuclear option, but it is one that’s available. The key question here is whether we believe that the current Government – or at least the Conservative parts of it – needs to be replaced entirely and following on from that, whether the election would produce a better Government.

I would say that my inclination at the moment would be towards option 1 or 2, as 3 is really wandering off the map into uncharted territory, not least because Labour’s current policy on most issues appears to be ‘I’m not sure what we’d do, but it wouldn’t be that’. However, I want to hear Liberal Democrat ministers and MPs coming out and saying just what they’re looking to achieve over the rest of this Government, and how they’re going to get our policies enacted, and not just crow in triumph every time they’ve diluted a Tory policy a little. I also want to know that the members of the party are going to be listened to, and not dismissed as an irrelevance getting in the way of governance.

It’s over two years since Gordon Brown left office, and I don’t want to hear Liberal Democrats still chanting ‘sorting out Labour’s mess’ as though it’s a mantra that excuses everything. We know they were bad, but if you want to continue in Government, you need to be telling us why you’re better.

But what do you think? Which option’s your best/least worst? How should we be proceeding over the next three months or three years?

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5 comments untill now

  1. Option 3 probably wouldn’t work like that. Under the fixed term Parliamant act, that can only be a general election under 2 circumstances.

    1. If 2/3 of MPs vote for an immediate general election – unlikjely Toroes would do this given the current polls

    2. If there was a vote of no confidence and within 2 weeks no other government was formed. However, after a NC vote, then The Queen would actually ask the leader of the opposition if he could form a government. Which he probably could, even as a minority govt or as supply and confidence with LDs.

    So if we withdraw from the coalition and there’s a NC vote AND its won (wich even with Labour and LDs voting together is by no means a foregone conclusion) – then the most likely outcome is a Labour govt.

  2. Interesting piece, Nick, and fascinating comment from Richard.

    I’m not sure you really answered your first question though, in terms of what circumstances would trigger a withdrawal rather than what tactics would be best. So, just as an e.g (but wasn’t the original context this?) if Cameron is shown to be helplessly corrupt, but won’t resign and the Tories are happy to keep him, then staying in Govt might seem morally and reputationally impossible.

    In which case option 1 is out, but would option 2 be enough?

  3. My thoughts on that are that while Labour would get the opportunity to form a government, I’m doubtful they would succeed. First, because the maths are as against an LD-Lab coalition as they were in 2010 and second, because I don’t think the public would wear it. Either by 2/3rds agreement or just by a government not being formed (there were enough Labour hardliners who were opposed to an agreement in 2010 to make it a non-starter, let alone now), my opinion is we’d end up with another election, even if it might be a couple of months down the road from the no confidence vote.

  4. My apologies for the multiple typos in my comment – typing in a rush!

  5. I think there are two possibilities here – if Leveson etc shows that Cameron et al are corrupt, or are walking that path without any intention of changing, then there’s the option of pulling out entirely, and going to option 3. The other issue there would be that if Cameron were to go, I can’t see who the Tories could replace him with that we’d want to remain in coalition with – Ken Clarke finally getting to be Tory leader seems incredibly unlikely, and I can’t see anyone else in the Cabinet who’d appeal.

    In more general terms, what I’d like to see is a statement of what we’re actually looking to achieve in government over the next three years, and not just a general ‘we want to do nice things’. We get lots of messages from the party saying ‘we’ve achieved X, Y, and Z’ but not much about what we’re going to do next.