East meets Westminster: Clegg admits “We’ll talk to other parties”

DAVID Cameron, look away now: Nick Clegg will have no loyalty to the Coalition Government come the next election and could even form a new partnership with Labour if there is another hung parliament, writes Richard Porritt.

In an exclusive interview with East meets Westminster the Deputy Prime Minister has piled yet more pressure on the Coalition on the eve of the parliamentary recess by admitting his party could dump the Tories in 2015.

The revelation comes amid the biggest tensions so far in the Conservative / Liberal Democrat partnership formed after no party won enough votes for a majority government two years ago.

After David Cameron was forced to drop a vote on a time programme to push through Lords Reform – one of the Lib Dem demands as the power brokering rumbled in Whitehall during the days after the election – there were mutterings of a plan by Mr Clegg’s MPs to scupper Tory proposals to change voting boundaries. If approved the changes would have a very positive impact on Mr Cameron’s party’s ability to win seats at general elections.

But now Mr Clegg’s candid words on the Coalition will be ringing in the Prime Minster’s ears all summer - and just days after he called for the Coalition to unite again and warned over “division and navel gazing”.

“I said consistently before the election that the party with the most votes and most seats would have the first right to try and form a government,” Mr Clegg said. “That proved to be the Conservatives, so it was right that we talked to them first.

“But we did talk to Labour and what was immediately clear was that not only did the mathematics of the election result mean a stable government was practically impossible, but there was no appetite from Labour to work with us. Of course, in 2015, whether or not there is a hung parliament, and whether the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives or Labour are the largest party, is up to the voters.

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“Liberal Democrats believe in plural politics – that politics can be better when political parties work together. Of course I would like to win the next election outright but if we don’t then of course we will be prepared to talk to other parties.”

Both Coalition partners have been open about their plans to campaign separately, but Number 10 would have hoped if it came to it they could continue as before rather than having to worry about whether Labour could tempt the Lib Dems.

And another hung parliament is a distinct possibility – Nick Clegg may well once again find himself as kingmaker. But although he publically clings on to the empty hope that his party might win the next general election outright he knows they will actually be lucky just to keep the seats they have already got. His only chance to continue to influence national decisions is within a coalition – maybe it is because the Labour Party is resurgent that Mr Clegg has chosen this moment to begin flirting with Ed Miliband in earnest?

His party have suffered the most since their disappointing election showing – yes they have seats at the top table but when things go well it is the Tories that bask in the sun. Polling currently has the Lib Dems battling for fourth slot with UKIP.

But the DPM remains convinced he made the right choice by joining forces with Mr Cameron – it is almost with a shrug of his shoulders that he tackles the issue of whether or not they will lose votes.

“The Liberal Democrats have had to make some very difficult decisions and do things we wouldn’t do if we ran the government on our own, but I think people understand that we formed the Coalition for the good of the country at a time of crisis,” he said.

“Political fortunes go up and down but I am confident that people will see that we have done what we have for the right reasons. But more than that, the Liberal Democrats are doing a lot to help people in tough times – cutting taxes for working people; the biggest cash rise in the state pension ever; more apprenticeships than ever before; helping the most deprived school pupils.

“Whether you reward us or not is up to you.”

Not the most striking of political slogans. Come the big push for votes Nick Clegg is unlikely to be unveiling a new manifesto titled: “Whether you reward us or not is up to you … Vote Liberal Democrat (or Labour or Conservative … or anyone you fancy really, we are not all that bothered.) What he is trying to say is “look at all the things we have done – why would you not vote for us?” Tuition fees remains the public’s stock answer.

And the list of achievements continues: “If you work, we are bringing down your taxes by raising the point at which you start paying Income Tax to �10,000 – that’s �700 a year compared to 2010 – a policy so important to us we put it on the front page of our manifesto.

“If you are retired, we have guaranteed you a generous state pension through our pensions triple lock. If you are a parent, we are helping you and your children by extending free childcare and investing in schools through the Pupil Premium.

“And if you are a young person, we are giving you a chance to get into work or training through the �1bn Youth Contract and the massive expansion of apprenticeships. I hope that by the next General Election people will see not only that we have provided stability and put the economy on the right track, but also that we gave people real support in tough times.”

History will paint a different picture of Mr Clegg than the cruel cartoonists who lampoon him as Mr Cameron’s Eton fag. He is actually far more powerful than that within Downing Street. The recent scramble by the Prime Minister to get his backbenchers onside over Lords Reform proved that. And, at some point in the future, people will look back on the Lib Dems’ time in Government and create a congratulatory list of some of the policies they influenced.

But with the General Election coming into view on the horizon Mr Clegg has his work cut out.

But he remains upbeat: “The next election is a milestone not an end point. I want us to have laid the foundations for a new, green economy that benefits the whole country, not just the City of London.

“I want us to have brought down youth unemployment and given people the skills they need to get on in life. I want us to have made the tax system fairer and to have improved the life chances of our children. The most important thing we have to do is fix the economy and create jobs. Without that we can’t make Britain the fairer, greener and more liberal country that I want us to be. “

At least he can rely on Sir Bob Russell, Colchester’s Lib Dem MP, to cruise to another victory at the next election – he will be sweating over lots of other seats.

Paying tribute to the party stalwart he said: “Sir Bob – and it is a well deserved title – is a force of nature. He lives and breathes Colchester and you couldn’t have a better man fighting your corner in Parliament. I think that over the last 40 years voters have been loyal to him because he has been loyal to them.

“Anyone that has come across him knows that he has nothing but the best interests of the people of Colchester at heart. And with him he has some of the most dedicated and hard working councillors you could ask for – people like Paul Smith, Anne Turrell and Jo Hayes. It’s a great team.”

Nick Clegg was an impressive politician outside government – and he remains so today. Many assume that he was delighted to cosy up with the Tories after the General Election because he recognised this was his only chance for a sniff of real power. The truth though is this was not an easy decision. Mr Clegg took a huge risk by going into Coalition. He knew it could backfire on his party – a party that had promised an impressive result at the General Election but failed to deliver – and so far the gamble has not paid off.

But do not write the Lib Dems off. As the Coalition creaks there will be opportunities for the junior partner to flex their muscles – and if the Tories do not turn around their troubling poll results, chances to win those lost votes back may well be up for grabs.

Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt.

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