Nick Clegg’s Selfish Flexibility

The Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has signaled his willingness to continue in a coalition with the Conservatives, should David Cameron’s party win the largest share of seats at the next election. Despite their rightward swing in the last three years, the ideological space between the Lib Dems and Labour is still much less than that between the Lib Dems and the Tories–and this is even more true of the grassroots party members than the leadership.

Clegg would likely say that this is a decision to govern “in the national interest.” Don’t believe him. It wasn’t true when Cameron and Clegg proclaimed this as the justification for their May pact in 2010, and it wouldn’t have been true of a Lib-Lab coalition either. Not all politicians are purely self-interested actors, and none can simply be understood in this way–there are far too many complex incentives and pressures for this to be the case. However, I would suggest that politicians at the top levels of national governments are more likely to behave in ways that respond to rational self interest (or what they perceive as their rational self-interest).

To the contrary, Clegg joined with Cameron for political reasons. First, he and his party wanted to be in government during peacetime for the first time since the 1930s. Power-seeking political action is a basic theory of political science and political activity, and Clegg’s participation in coalition fits neatly with that behavioral principle. At the same time, as I wrote at the time, Clegg would have been taking a risk by not entering into coalition as well. (As it turns out, his gamble on the AV referendum entirely failed, but the relative non-responsiveness of FPP systems to polling swings means that, vitally for Clegg, there is still a reasonable chance for the Lib Dems to be kingmakers in 2015).

There was another political consideration at work in 2010 that may have precluded a Lib-Lab pact (aside from Clegg’s personal antipathy for Gordon Brown and the latter’s terrible personal poll ratings). The Conservatives had won the largest share of the Commons seats and a plurality of the raw vote. Should Labour win the largest share of seats and votes in 2015, Clegg will have to choose between a swing back to the left or abandoning the principle upon which he chose to work with the Tories in 2010. A Con-Lib coalition after Labour wins a plurality of seats and votes would be a very controversial move, arguably one that repudiates a swing for change among the electorate.

In a sense, Clegg is just keeping his options open, but his comments were also a response to continued mutterings about a Lib-Lab coalition. As a representative of the right wing of the Liberal Democrats, he is more likely than most to work with the Tories. He also doesn’t seem to get along very well with Ed Miliband, although this could simply be current political necessity. Still, the Conservatives’ rightward swing, particularly the renewed Euroskepticism of the frontbench, may be problematic for a Con-Lib coalition in 2015. As it stands, an in/out referendum may well take Britain out of the EU, and the Liberal Democrats will want to prevent that however they can (although not at all costs).

Given their terrible poll numbers (as low as 8% in one recent YouGov survey) the Liberals’ best hope is a very hung parliament. By that I mean a set of results that leaves them with the most possible leverage, where Labour or the Tories couldn’t make a deal with one of the smaller parties in order to govern (a Lab-SNP-Plaid pact for devo max to Scotland and Wales, for example, may be an option if Labour gets about 315 seats). What Clegg is trying to do here–or what he should be doing, certainly–is create maximum leverage for his party in any future coalition negotiations.

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