Could Cardiff scupper a Brown-Campbell deal?

Could events in Wales upset the rapprochement between Menzies Campbell and Gordon Brown?

It was strongly rumoured after the Scottish elections that Campbell was pressuring Scottish Lib Dems not go into Government with the SNP, after talks with Gordon Brown that raised the prospect of a Lib-Lab coalition at Westminster.

The Lib Dems decision not to deal with Alex Salmond doesn’t make much sense unless seen in this light.  (Neal Ascherson convincingly demolishes the alternative explanations at openDemocracy).

The Welsh Liberal Democrats’ initally followed this pattern when they refused to go into a coalition with Plaid Cymru and the Tories. However, a grassroots rebellion means that the three parties may yet kick Labour out of power in Cardiff.

That prospect is bound to have an impact on the Brown-Campbell dialogue, and Labour’s Westminster backbenchers haven’t been backward in coming forward about the issue:

Labour MPs, particularly those from Wales, are queuing up to condemn
the Lib Dem maneouvering and say that it does diminish the potential
for the two parties to work together at Westminster – not least because
it reinforces all that’s bad about a PR voting system that the Lib Dems
would demand in return for supporting a minority Labour government.

“They are a party that’s pathetic,” Labour’s MP for Caerphilly,
Wayne David, told the Western Mail. “Their right hand doesn’t know what
their left hand is doing. Trying to negotiate with these people, whose
attitude changes from hour to hour, is almost impossible. “I think
events will concentrate people’s view that proportional representation
should be avoided as an absolute disaster.”

"I campaigned for PR
but having seen how it works, I’m not an enthusiast anymore," said his
colleague from Cynon Valley, Ann Clwyd. "It makes for weak government.
Most people in Westminster who supported PR would not support it now.”

"The myth of the Liberal Democrats as a progressive party has been shattered,” concluded Wrexham MP Ian Lucas. (Telegraph blogs)

I suspect this resentment is unlikely to be decisive for the possibility of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Westminster. Adam Boulton spells out the reason why:

On all opinion-poll and electoral evidence, Labour seems on course
to do less well at the next election than at the last. In 2005, the
slump in majority was attributed to a relatively small net move away
from Labour and a slightly smaller net switch to the Lib Dems.Gordon Brown needs those votes back. (New Statesman)

Labour may well need the Lib Dems after the next election. However, the numbers game will matter far more than any pre-election dialogue between the parties.

The lesson of the pre-1997 talks between Blair and Ashdown is that Labour need the Lib Dems to get a majority they will do a deal. If they don’t they won’t. It’s worth remembering that Gordon Brown and Jack Straw were among the opponents of a formal agreement on that occasion.

Its difficult to see what the Lib Dems have to gain from passing up on power in Scotland and Wales, when the prospect of a coalition, or the introduction of PR, could turn out once again to be a mirage.

Unless, that is, the deal was front-loaded with the benefits coming before the election, as Boulton’s article suggests is possible:

"Will we offer jobs to Liberal Democrats?" mused one {Brownite source]. "I’d say it’s
more a question of when. Now, from a position of strength; in the
run-up to the general election when we may need to; or afterwards, when
we may have to."

A deal that gets the Lib-Dems into government before the next election would have obvious attractions for Menzies Campbell. It would have equally clear dangers for his party.

For one thing, it would amount to a tacit admission that Labour cannot win the next election on its own. The Lib Dems would be accused of propping up an unpopular government, and would be left even more vulnerable to what is arguably the biggest threat facing them, David Cameron’s Conservatives.

For the Lib Dems, a far better strategy would be to remain an independent force, and use Scotland and Wales to showcase their ability to get things done by holding the balance of power. At Holyrood, the SNP are practically begging for the chance to implement much of the Lib Dem manifesto.

Keeping their options open in this way would arguably strengthen the Lib Dems bargaining position even if their long-term aim was a post-election deal with Labour.

The one factor that might alter this calculation would be a bill on proportional representation in the current Parliament, and there are hints that Brown is indeed considering this.

This might not go down well with disillusioned Labour MPs from Scotland and Wales, but if Brown thinks he needs a deal then it is Campbell who holds all the cards.

If the Lib Dem stance in Scotland is part of a wider Lib-Lab deal, it raises this question: Has Campbell scooped the jackpot, and got a secure commitment to PR, or has he folded too easily, like Paddy Ashdown?



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