Insights from the UK and beyond
Liberal Democrats and the balance of power
A senior Liberal Democrat has lifted a lid on the murky world of coalition politics – a touchy subject for the party which last tasted national power in Britain in the brief Lib-Lab pact of the late 1970s.
Leader Nick Clegg says he is not wasting a “millisecond” speculating on the outcome of the coming general election, expected next May.
But his Education Spokesman David Laws (pictured) has revealed that, at least until 1999, the party had a standard coalition document ready for use just in case it held the balance of power in a hung parliament.
“I understand it had been going around since 1970,” Laws told a fringe meeting at the party’s autumn conference in Bournemouth.
“It was dusted off feverishly for every general election — the party leaders got extremely excited that they were going to be sweeping into power — and then it was dusted away into the bottom drawer afterwards.
“Although it was dated 1999 I suspect it was redated on a fairly frequent basis.”
Brandishing the thin document, Laws told the Liberal Democrat History Group how he had been given it 1999 when Paddy Ashdown sent him, not yet an MP, up to Edinburgh ahead of the May election that year for the new Scottish parliament to help possible coalition talks.
In the vote Labour under leader Donald Dewar became the largest party with 56 seats, but needed the support of the LibDems’ 17 members for a majority in the new 126 seat chamber at Holyrood.
“There was huge pressure and scrutiny as the Scottish election came to an end, expectations that (coalition) decisions would be taken quickly,” he said.
“The people involved in the campaign were absolutely exhausted. I think one of the challenges for us is to make sure, if future occasions arise, that we move as quickly as possible.”
It took a week of fraught negotiations to seal the coalition deal, which in the end was not based in the old LibDem document, but on the text of a more substantial coalition agreement signed by the parties sharing government on the other side of the world in New Zealand.
Does today’s Liberal Democrat party have a similar pre-prepared coalition agreement ready to hand?
In the video clip below you can hear Laws deny that any such document exists today – but is there the trace of a smile when he says that? You decide.