The best clue we have of Nick Clegg’s negotiating position came from Paddy Ashdown on the Today programme this morning.
If this was a coalition made up of what you might call the panjandrum elements that you suggest, I would not be in favour of it. It is a coalition made up of Liberal Democrat and Labour in which we would dare the other elements if they wished to vote us down and, I can tell you, I can think of no political circumstances where that would happen.
In other words, a narrowly based Lab Lib Dem rather than a rainbow coalition might be enough for the Lib Dem leadership , even though some arrangement with NI parties can be assumed, almost taken for granted. The SDLP already take the Labour whip in UK wide matters, Alliance is affiliated to the Lib Dems. Presumably they would be bound into the coalition majority. Sylvia Hermon would be asked for formal support in the light of her anti Tory campaign and thumping majority.
The essential “rainbow” element , the SNP has been explicitly ruled out by Labour this morning. Labour’s objections are not limited to basic incompatibility with the SNP. They extend to any suggestion that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would receive special treatment in the imminent deficit reduction plan. It’s not a question of the sums of money involved which are comparatively small , taking account of the scale of total government expenditure. It’s the principle of unwarranted favouritism that would infuriate the English majority of all parties. Short term gain could be won at the expense of destabilising the new government and even the Union. As John Reid bluntly put it: ” if we watch the minutes too closely we lose the hours” Along with the Heath Robinson nature of the whole thing, this is the greatest weakness of the whole Lab-Lib scenario.
That is not say there is nothing for NI parties to gain. An extra 5 NI votes would come in handy and even a further 8 DUP are not be sniffed at. But NI parties should entertain no illusions. A formal deal as part of coalition settlement giving NI exemption from a deficit reduction plan can be ruled out in any coalition, whether Conservative or Labour led.
By the way, in any arrangement with Labour , the voting record of NI MPs would have to improve dramatically. In thehigjly volatile new Parliament, they would be required to be on hand every day and sometimes into the night. Under this sort of pressure you can forget about dual mandates.
As a footnote, how interesting to see that Niall Dowd the Irish-American lobbyist is urging them to take their seats and back a Lab- LD coalition.
And yet.. the whole notion smacks of desperation. Is it really viable if “crunch time ” is supposed to come tonight, and there’s no sign as I write that the NI parties have been spoken to?
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