Tory-Lib Dem deal draws nearer

With all respect to them, a Labour-led government depending on a gather-up of  3 SDLP, 1 Alliance, 1 North Down Independent and the Nats  – maybe even including the DUP for goodness sake –  cannot be called stable. Even the Guardian, the voice of the “progressive majority” is steeling itself for a Conservative-Lib Dem deal. Across the aisle, pro-Tory commentator Ben Brogan is pretty firm about the extent of Cameron’s offer to Clegg.

He is offering to trade reform of the voting system for a two-year deal with Nick Clegg that would deliver economic and social change and, in particular, the painful cuts needed to reduce the deficit. Suddenly, it is the Conservatives who are the radicals.

Senior sources speculate that he could eventually offer the Lib Dems a form of electoral reform based on the additional vote system (AV) or even the AV-plus devised by the Lib Dem peer Lord Jenkins – and rejected by Mr Blair – more than a decade ago. Both maintain the constituency link that Tories say is essential, and both require voters to express a second preference.

For the Tories this would kill off the UK Independence Party vote which cost them an estimated 21 seats last week – enough to give them a majority. Even far-Right Tories have spotted this opportunity.

Mr Cameron is focused on delivering what his party wants: power.

 Electoral reform for a smaller Commons may even appeal to Tories who have noticed that the Celtic fringe made a big contribution to their failure to reach a majority. Watch out for new strains over devolution.

Coalition or confidence and supply? With places in government, the Lib Dems could keep a closer watch on the deal . If any arrangement collapses , they’ll take heat anyway. And the scale of the U turn Cameron has to make over electoral reform? The new Parliament will have a majority in favour of reform  (although with dissidents on both sides) and the Conservatives may reserve the right to oppose it in a referendum that will be years away yet.

At his moment of maximum discretion , Cameron may be deciding to lead the realignment of politics to trump his own Right wing and thwart a later Lab-Lib alliance. A leftward lean on electoral reform may be balanced by good luck from Europe. The massive rescue package for the euro seems to have halted the crisis, at little cost to Britain.

This buys time for the UK to sort a new government out. Dealing with the wolf cries emerging from the Times is for another day.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London