Monday, 10 May 2010

LibDems set the pace on negotiations

It must have been a shock to dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives who thought they'd simply stroll into Downing Street after the election that nobody was willing to simply fall at their feet, but after a day of drama their desperation and indecision is almost completely exposed.

However it is the skill of the LibDem negotiating team (and their public reticence) which has enabled the initiative to be taken at every stage.

Nick Clegg started it all of by describing Brown as a squatter in number 10. He followed this up by making the decisive intervention consistent with his earlier statements that David Cameron had the first right to attempt to build a majority.

But Clegg has cleverly kept open communications channels with both sides and as the weekend passed and greater analysis of the results showed the disparity between Labour's local results and the national picture it became clear that the election was a judgement on Gordon Brown; while Brown remained leader Labour could not entertain thoughts of continuing in power.

Of course Brown was pushed into his resignation by the urging of reality from either Clegg himself or a combination of senior civil servants and advisors, but the ability to plausibly deny this gave Brown the power to resign with dignity and thereby weaken the Conservative hand still further just as it opened up fresh hope to Labour.

It also shows just how underprepared the Cameron team is and just how bad their contingency planning has been. They are being knocked sideways at the speed of events and cannot keep up with Clegg & Co.

The LibDems are assisted by their greater experience in similar negotiating positions (David Steel in the 1974 pact with Labour, Paddy Ashdown's aborted attempts to do a deal on electoral reform with Tony Blair etc) and have learnt from these mistakes. Each has known exactly the role required of them and they are all immaculately coordinated.

So it is still the tories who have most to fear as they are completely at the mercy of their leaders and cannot engage any so-called 'triple lock' - go too far in any agreement and they risk blowing apart their fragile internal consensus, refuse all agreements and they may lose their chance at the prize. They have no means to bring their leaders to book.

Michael Gove took the first step into the unknown as he was forced to declare he would accept his opposite number David Laws as Schools minister in his place in order to hint that cabinet positions were possible concessions (to all intents and purposes signifying the tory preference was for coalition rather than a 'supply and confidence' arrangement on the Queen's Speech).

And then, when George Osborne of all people responded to the threat of a 'progressive' alliance by announcing the concession of a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (which is exactly what Labour prefers), it was essentially an admission of defeat. Just how far are they prepared to go?

William Hague has become the de facto tory principle, while John Major is being used as the official messenger, but Cameron is barely to be seen. His public relations team have had him wandering aimlessly around tieless and in shirtsleeves just at the moment it is important to look statesmanlike. With agitiation by the hardliners against any concessions he has already allowed his team to go out on a limb - any further and it could easily snap!

Yet the public demonstrations for electoral reform are spreading (I'll be in Reading tomorrow) and it is becoming clear that despite how they are being used by Labour activists to mount pressure on LibDems to reject the Conservative approaches this is also helping put Clegg at the political centre. Keep this up much longer with no new Labour leader in place then it starts to be difficult to see how a Lib-Lab alliance could avoid making Clegg Prime Minister.

So it now becomes likely that an overnight coup will be mounted within Labour as the oft-rumoured contenders for the job see their chance for glory (I'll put on record my prediction that Douglas Alexander will eventually get the job after the shakedown) - Brown in charge is unacceptable and he will make a Lib-Lab government impossible if he stays, but it is equally unthinkable to them that the smaller party could take the top job which is unavoidable if Brown stays put and cannot be shifted. Then again it was Brown in the spotlight of the leadership debates, so who could be a legitimate replacement other than Clegg?

However I'll offer a word of warning to them - I think this creates just the excuse the LibDems are looking for to step back from agreement with Labour and continue the uncertainty to try to extract further concessions from the Conservatives or refuse to make any formal alliance with either if they so wish.

At that stage Clegg will have successfully manoeuvered both of the other parties sufficiently far to be able to argue they are just two sides of the same Status Quo record (well, Labour and tories have now both come out for AV).

The LibDems are in the driving seat and they are shifting neatly through the gears. They have carved out three positive options: alliance with Labour and Clegg as PM, minority rule by Cameron's Conservatives with the ability to bring them down at any moment, or quite possibly the nuclear option - the chaos of a Lab-Con government and the complete fracturing of the party system to make way for more proportional elections.

We can't tell yet which is the number one option for the LibDems, and in some part it will depend on the timing of developments which they are able to take, but with the way they've been playing the hand dealt to them they've shown they are already the number one strategic players.

The universal courting of Clegg and his team (even the SNP have been softening their edge recently) reflects not only the strength of their position in these circumstances, but also just how well they are making it work for them.

Alistair Campbell's smug relief at the thought that Labour may possibly be back in has been noted, but his limited ambitions also limit his imagination about the way it can play out. To a partisan like him it is inconcievable that any opportunity to deprive his tory opponents of the prize will ever be spurned.

So it's worth taking heed of David Laws' Rule #4 on negotiating in a balanced parliament - you need to show you are prepared to walk away in order to extract better terms, the consequence of which is that the more finely balanced the situation the more concessions can be extracted. If you are too attached to the outcome you will only be disapponted.

Just to wrap up this ramble I want add just how revealing the body language of each side has been as the different sides used their walkabouts up and down Whitehall to strut their stuff amid a barrage of press.

Hague looked like a puffed-up cockerel (was he wearing a corset?) at the front of a slightly confused and flattered Oliver Letwin, while Cable, Huhne and Danny Alexander were far more composed and confident. In front of the cameras Clegg looked and sounded serious, while Cameron looked bewildered. Not one Labour figure looked anything other than a lame duck quacking for attention.

An unexpected turn of events then, but as they say in politics, expect the unexpected. The LibDems obviously did.

No comments: