Gordon Brown’s coup of an offer to form a Labour -Lib Dem coalition and then quit reopens up the possibility of NI MPs holding a delicate balance of power. A Lib Lab deal would be stronger because:
- it would be a coalition of the like-minded not a looser arrangement which is where the Cons-LD talks seemed to be heading.
- Brown has repeated his clear offer of electoral reform which has emerged as a sticking point on opposite sides with both the Cons and LD rank and file.
Crucially it would be weaker because of the arithmetic:
- Cons and LDs together are 363, a clear working majority, whereas Lab -LDs amount to only 315, well short and so in need of further backing.
- the coalition would be led from October by another Labour prime minister who has not presented him/herself to voters in that role. (But we elect MPs directly, nor prime ministers).
- If we take for granted ( should we?) 3 SDLP, I Alliance and one Independent the Lab-LD coalition tally rises to 320, 6 short.
- Contrary to what London metropolitan commentators seem to think, it would bizarre if Brown accepted Alex Salmond’s offer of an deal over electoral reform. The SNP remain Labour’s deadly enemies. The 3 Plaid Cymru members might be easier partners because that party is in coalition with Labour in Cardiff Bay. But the two nationalist parties operate together in Westminster. Can Labour split them apart? The sole Green MP is an ultra Keynsian. Her support can’t be assumed.
Dont forget Brown’s stated priorty is to agree a deficit reduction plan. This clashes directly with nationalist demands to maintain block grant levels? And yet the Nats will feel that Labour will wield the axe more gently than the Tories.
So let’s assume this rainbow coalition can be put together. It amounts to 329, a clear if shaky majority.
Would the senior partners of the “progressive coalition” prefer to swap the 9 leftish Nats for the 8 right wing populist unionist DUP? On what terms? Can the pious call for all NI sitting MPs to act together become a reality that makes a difference? That would power sharing raised to a new level to present as example to the ranks in Stormont.
Only if a Lab/LD coaltion becomes viable do the minor parties enter the lists. They may have a couple of days to devise their terms – if the Conservatives don’t beat them to it first.
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