One interesting aspect of the election result is that it’s been bad for all three of the main party leaders. (You could even extend that and say that it’s been bad for all the party leaders – Ieuan Wyn Jones, Alex Salmond, Salma Yaqoob and Nick Griffin have all had a disappointing time of it, not to mention Reg Empey and Peter Robinson – but it doesn’t quite work; Caroline Lucas had rather a good night, and I don’t think the non-Unionist parties in the North of Ireland are complaining. Bad joke about wearing of the green goes here.)
But Brown, Cameron and Clegg have all had a bad result, and will all be facing criticism from within their party: it’ll be argued that a different style of leadership could have saved Labour from the wipeout, could have given the Tories an outright majority, could have made the Lib Dem breakthrough a reality. (This is clearly magical thinking to some extent – after all, if all the parties had performed better their results would presumably be stuck pretty much at their current level. Also, the idea that the leader has a defining influence on the party’s performance smacks of power-worship and is almost certainly inaccurate anyway. But we’ll go with it for the time being, because the current stalemate does put the leaders front and centre, and I want to think about what they’re going to do next.)
Now, the one thing a party leader can never do – or not while remaining party leader – is to lose face by conceding to criticism from others. (This is what made the Gillian Duffy story so grimly fascinating; Brown did nothing that we haven’t all done, but his political position meant that a loss of face was a tremendous risk – and it was extraordinarily difficult to extricate himself without one.) There are two main strategies for dealing with criticism without losing face: one is to double down and make a virtue of the position being criticised, demonstrating its strengths and merits; the other is to adopt the criticism as one’s own and address it without seeming to concede anything to the critics, getting out of trouble in a kind of knight’s move. All three of the main party leaders are going to have to adopt one of these tactics over the next few days, and it’ll be interesting to see which escape route they each choose.
What Brown did wrong – or what Brown will be seen to have done wrong; or the area where Brown will be seen to have gone wrong by acting like Brown – was to hang on like grim death: refusing an early election, refusing a leadership election, refusing to resign as leader, refusing to call the election until the very last minute. Right from when he took over from Blair, Brown was determined to k. b. o., in Churchill’s immortal phrase. It’s going to be hard over the next few days for him to make a virtue of this approach; flexibility and surprise are going to be at a premium. The obvious escape route – in more ways than one – would be to resign, but I don’t see Brown resigning as PM or party leader and simply walking away, like Heath in 1974 (as PM) or Wilson in 1976; I think his parting gift to the party would be to resign in such a way as to hand power to a chosen successor, as the prospective head of a coalition government. I haven’t the faintest idea how that could be fixed – it would need to involve an awful lot of talking to the Lib Dems and other parties – but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brown’s working on it.
What Clegg did wrong – or where Clegg went wrong by acting unlike Ashdown or Kennedy, say – was clearly to move the party to the Right. You can look at this as an attempt to return to equidistance between the main parties after getting uncomfortably close to Labour, or simply as a move rightwards: tailoring the party’s approach to its main target seats by appealing to Tory voters, while banking the support the party had already gained from former Labour voters. Either way, it backfired spectacularly on the night: faced with a party that seemed destined for coalition and refused to rule out coalition with their least favoured party, many people not only declined to vote Lib Dem but actually cast an anti-Lib Dem vote. 23% isn’t a bad vote, but it’s well down in the realms of the third-party squeeze – in a way that the 26-28% the polls seemed to promise wouldn’t have been. Clegg could double down on the move rightwards by sealing the deal with Cameron; he could even double down on ‘equidistance’ by proposing a Grand Coalition, although I suspect that if he was going to do this he would have done it by now. These options would not be without problems, to put it mildly. I’ve been defending the Lib Dems for years, pointing out their radical policies to Labour loyalists and socialists who dismiss them as ‘yellow Tories’. I’ll never say another word in their defence if they make a deal with Cameron now – and I imagine there are many more like me, some of whom have actually voted for them. The alternative would be to cut the knot by dumping equidistance, shifting back leftwards and forming a ‘progressive’ alliance; that would work – it could solve our problems as well as Clegg’s own – but I’m not sure Clegg’s the man to do it.
Cameron is probably in the worst position of all, and in the most need of some quick and innovative thinking (hmm…). His critics are sure he’s done something wrong – something bad enough to turn a Tory landslide into a mere 307 seats, without even any Ulster Unionists to prop up the numbers – but they don’t agree on what it is. For every Tory who thinks Cameron should never have linked up with the assorted nutters of the European Conservative and Reformist group, there’s one who thinks he’s too much of a Europhile; for every Tory who thinks he should face down the climate change deniers, homophobes and cadet Teabaggers who now find a home in the party, there’s someone who thinks those groups are the future. And then there’s Philip Blond and the ‘Big Society’ theme, which hardly anyone has any enthusiasm for – but it’s hard to even hang that on Cameron, since it’s not clear that he has much enthusiasm for it either. The problem is, he’s not a conviction politician and never has been; he’s Dave from PR (or rather, Eton, BalliolBrasenose and PR). Both of the tactics I’ve been describing – doubling down on the offending behaviour or convincingly repudiating it – are going to be hard for Cameron, since they would require him first to identify something people think he’s doing wrong and then to make a convincing case for it. (Or, indeed, against it.) I think rather than open any of these ideological cans of worms, he’ll take a couple of steps back and conceptualise his approach to leading the party as one in which they trust him and he gives them power – and on that basis where he’s gone wrong is in failing to deliver. This would make the escape route easy to identify, too: he gives them power, they get off his back.
With all this in mind, I think we can expect the Tories to go quite a long way to meet the Lib Dems halfway. Whether it will be enough is another matter, as the one thing they will need the most in that situation – some way of maintaining their credibility on the Left – won’t be in the Tories’ gift. Cameron could go some way to providing it by offering the Lib Dems a loose alliance, with a free vote on non-confidence measures; however, this wouldn’t be enough to solve his own problem, by guaranteeing the Tories power as well as office. At some not too distant point it’ll be up to Brown to produce a better offer, i.e. one which solves his problem as well as Clegg’s; in principle this seems, if anything, more achievable than a durable Lib Dem/Tory deal, but the practicalities may be against it.
With the possibility of PR aroud the corner and the possibility of the Lib Dems taking a definitive step to the Right in the mean time, the stakes are high. The British political scene may be about to become a great deal more fluid, or the music may be about to stop, freezing it in a definitively right-of-centre configuration. All we know at the moment is that it’s not over yet; we can still hope for the best as well as fearing the worst.
UpdateThoughtful postscript The question is what arrangements there are which would allow two of the party leaders to pull off one of the self-justifying/self-exculpatory moves described above. As we’ve seen, Clegg could answer the critics of equidistance by collapsing the Lib Dem waveform either rightwards or leftwards. Justifying himself by sticking it out seems less likely, if only because the only practical way of doing this – offering a Grand Coalition – is in nobody else’s interest. Going Left would probably be easier than going Right, if only because the Tories are unlikely to be able to offer enough to make the deal palatable to the Lib Dem base. But if the Lib Dems can’t meet Cameron halfway, he’s going to be stuck: unlike the other two leaders, there isn’t a reverse gear (or a knight’s move) available to him. All he can do is double down on being him: Dave from PR, the sincere opportunist, the liberal Tory, the reactionary moderniser; all the contradictions of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party swept under one shiny new market-ready carpet. But that’s only going to work for as long as it delivers results, which it may be about to stop doing.
As for Brown, a good move would be to make a virtue of repudiating his limpet-like tendencies, by offering his resignation as a sweetener to a deal with Clegg. As well as being a costly signal, this would up the ante on the Lib Dems (what else do you want?). A really good move would be to make a virtue of going while also making a virtue of staying, as the one politician capable of steering Britain through these troubled times, and so forth.
Clegg has, of course, said that he’ll give the Tories first go at winning him over, but it occurs to me that he might be playing quite a clever game. If Clegg had announced after the election that the Lib Dems would talk to both major parties, he’d have been lynched by the press. So perhaps the plan is to talk publicly to the Tories, but also talk to Labour without telling them. Then, by the time the Tories reach their high bid, Labour will know the target they need to beat; they’ll also know by then that they need to make an offer pronto. These could be very interesting times.
That was a thoughtful and prescient postscript written on the 8th of May. Not an update written with hindsight on the very interesting evening of the 10th – certainly not.