Considered purely as a piece of politics, both the content and the timing of Brown’s resignation were masterly. He gave the Tories time to not-quite make a deal – four days, the same amount of time Wilson gave Heath in 1974. Then he did two things which fundamentally alter the equation for the Lib Dems: he removed himself as problem and he made an offer on the alternative vote and PR which the Tories can’t match.
If the deal went ahead, we would end up with yet another Labour prime minister whom we didn’t elect. We the electorate wouldn’t like that. And I haven’t altered the view I began with, which is that this is a good election to lose. The economic realities are what they are, and no government can possibly combine deeper cuts than Mrs Thatcher’s with electoral popularity. But even giving full weight to both these factors, it’s very difficult for Clegg and the Lib Dems to turn this offer down. A coalition with the Tories would stick in the throat of so many Lib Dem voters that I just don’t think it’s possible. An alliance with Labour isn’t nearly as awkward, especially since it offers in concrete form some of the electoral reform they’ve been fantasising about since the dawn of time.
The voters would be unhappy with the stitch-up. But there’s an upside to that too, since a coalition defeat in the not-too-distant next election would put the onus of the difficult years back on the Tories. A Lib Dem activist I spoke to yesterday, before the news about Brown broke, was saying: ‘What I’d really like is the rainbow coalition. We pass electoral reform, just get something through, and we’d get a kicking at the election but at least it would be done.’
It’s a hell of a fork in the road for Nick ‘I am not the kingmaker’ Clegg. It also has the potential to be a huge mistake for the Labour party, who might well be better advised to accept their defeat and go into opposition. As for Cameron, he must feel ill. A large section of his own party think he cocked up the election; they will not be happy bunnies if they end up on the opposition benches again. The electorate clearly wanted to give all politicians a hard time, and have done a brilliant job of it.