I don’t know if the ‘traffic light’ coalition is going to work, although it has to be said that the arithmetic isn’t as tight as it’s often made look. I think the problem is that the media here keep forgetting about the North of Ireland. (Great argument for the peace process that is – at one time the province was never out of the news.) Take the weird and wonderful story of UCUNF, a party which I think has appeared on the BBC News precisely twice – the manifesto launch and the DUP poster debacle. I’m not sure anyone in the British media noticed what’s just happened to the Ulster Unionist Party – you know the ones: the heirs of ‘official’ unionism, the ones who weren’t in big with the Orange Lodge and the gunmen, the ones that British government always used to talk to. Quick recap: they merged with the Tory Party; they gave themselves the worst acronym in the world, and they got wiped out; party leader and all. Newly-formed NI wing of the Tory Party: nul points, or rather zero MPs. Sole survivor of the wreck: Lady Sylvia Hermon, standing as an independent, against a candidate from her old party, and taking over 60% of the vote. Story there, you’d think, maybe?
Anyway, NI votes are crucial to the coalition arithmetic, in a number of ways. Firstly, the ‘winning post’ of 326 Commons votes (650/2 + 1), cited over and over again by BBC News, is mythical: there are five MPs from Sinn Fein who never attend, not to mention the Speaker (a Tory). So there are 644 MPs who turn up and vote in divisions, meaning 323 votes (not 326) are needed for an absolute majority.
NI MPs’ votes also count positively. The starting point for a ‘Lab/Lib’ coalition is 320 votes, not 315: Labour + LD + SDLP (whose MPs take the Labour whip) + the Alliance Party (sister party of the LDs) + Lady Sylvia (who left her party rather than vote with the Tories). Admittedly, that’s still a minority overall, but from the Tory point of view it’s an alarmingly big minority. To win a vote against that lineup Cameron would need all 306 Tories (not including the Speaker) plus 15 of the remaining 18 – 3 Plaid Cymru, 6 SNP, 1 Green and (let’s not forget about the province again) 8 DUP MPs. The DUP platform is a many-splendoured thing, but a significant part of their appeal to the NI electorate last week was not being allied with the Tories (as witness that unfortunate poster). That doesn’t look promising for the Tories. (If Thirsk goes Lib Dem on 27 May, which is possible, the basic Labour/Lib Dem alliance goes up to 321 votes, and the Tories are scraping around for 17 votes out of 18 to beat them – basically they’d need everyone but the Green.)
Anyway, it’s still all to play for, although probably not for much longer. But what I really wanted to put down, before this post becomes obsolete, is that you can tell something about the quality of a deal by the opposition it provokes. And this deal really seems to be annoying all the right people. A few quotes culled from the BBC’s live feed:
The Tories came out of the election in a far better fashion than Labour and this should be acknowledged, former Home Secretary John Reid says. The major party should be allowed to form a government, he tells the BBC.
Telegraph commentator Toby Young tweets: A Lab-Lib coalition would be like a declaration of civil war.
The Lib Dems are guilty of a form of betrayal by opening talks with Labour after being offered compromises by the Conservatives, Phillip Blond, director of the Tory think-tank ResPublica, says.
The Daily Mail has a bleak view of Monday’s proceedings. It proclaims a Squalid Day for Democracy, calling Nick Clegg two-faced. The Daily Telegraph calls Mr Brown’s decision to quit a sordid attempt to keep Labour in power.
David Blunkett says the Lib Dems are behaving like every harlot in history, and that Labour should not be seeking to form the next government.
This is the Robert Mugabe style of politics, says Conservative MP and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. It’s exactly what Mugabe did you know, he lost the election and scrabbled to hold onto power.
It’s a strong field, but I think the Robert Mitchum Award for Cool-Headed Sagacity has to go to Sir Malcolm.
But what are they all flapping about? Elsewhere there’s been some discussion of whether the major parties would fall apart under PR; I’ve argued against, citing the experience of Scotland (the Scottish Labour Party’s had 12 years of PR now and still seems to be in one piece). In the case of the Conservative Party, I think I might make an exception. There’s a lot going on under the surface of the Tory Party these days – pro-Europe, anti-Europe; liberal, reactionary; Thatcherite, old-school Tory, beyond-Thatcherite… The genius of David Cameron has been to bundle it all into a big opaque parcel, sealed with a label saying Next Stop Downing Street. That’s what’s starting to come undone now, and the fallout could be catastrophic for the party – all the more so under PR, not least because it would bring the far Right into play. (UKIP got nearly a million votes last week, and the BNP half a million. The Greens got 300,000.) Small wonder they’re panicking.
As for the Blairites – or is this a subspecies, the Blairite Home Office Authoritarian? – I guess they see their grip on the party slipping, and think it would be easier to recover in opposition than while sharing power with the Lib Dems. (Think of it, no ID cards! no control orders! The horror! The horror!) Really dreadful stuff from Reid and Mr Brightside – one of whom is, as far as I know, still under Parliamentary Labour Party discipline. Being prepared to consign Britain to Tory government – positively eager in Blunkett’s case – rather than risk diluting the Labour programme is pretty contemptible sectarianism; when you look at the kind of dilutions that would be needed to accommodate the Lib Dems, it’s beneath contempt.