After analysing the Lib Dem position with regard to their own performance, let’s turn to where it leaves them as kingmakers.
The Lib Dems are caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. They are also in a weaker position than most people seem to realise.
Aligning with the Tories represents a short-term gain and long-term pain. In the short term, they get to implement key parts of their manifesto (particularly in education, the environment and some parts of tax reform). However, the promise of an inquiry into electoral reform sounds like a sop rather than a commitment, and the wrath of significant swathes of the wider Liberal Democrat party would be heaped upon Clegg if he goes with the Tories. The long term is that the Tories will abandon the Lib Dems as soon as they can, which won’t be long at all, and certainly within 12 months.
Aligning with the Labour party represents short-term pain and long-term gain. In the short term, they would have to align themselves with an unpopular Prime Minister and probably wouldn’t get much on their key policies. Even if Labour replaced Brown, though this might work for Clegg, another ‘unelected Prime Minister’ won’t work for a considerable proportion of the general public. In the long term, the Lib Dems would have that referendum on electoral reform (though I doubt it will be on proportional representation). This option also brings more of the wider Liberal Democrat party with its leadership.
Neither of these options is particularly or politically palatable. Which is why I suggest the Lib Dem position is much weaker than most realise.
Which way is Clegg going to go? Given his European experience of horse trading and compromise on nearly everything, and his evident dislike of Gordon Brown, I suspect he’ll try and work something out with David Cameron – under the banner of ‘national interest’ and focusing on the economic crisis.
But the price he’ll pay for this is not getting a firm, timebound and specific commitment on electoral reform. He will also lose whatever claim he had to being a politician of ‘change’ (which I’ve always thought was tenuous anyway). This loss will be both with his own party and with those who were attracted to him and away from the other parties.
By the time the Tories have established themselves through a Queen’s Speech and budget as a minority government, the Lib Dems’ unique position as kingmakers will have dwindled to ineffective opposition and the continuing runt of a 2.5-party system.
I hope they will be surpassed by a resurgent Labour party under a new leader, but even then I fear Labour will probably still lose the next general election to an emboldened and confident Conservative party.