So, just two days after the general election, Clegg is being courted by both Tories and Labour – and being encouraged to jump for one or the other. I think that he would be unwise to jump for either at the moment, if he is not to throw away his hard-won cards.
My bet is that Clegg won't (or won't be allowed by his party) to enter into ANY arrangement with the Tories, mainly because they won't offer any real promise of PR and his party will make it clear he MUST vote against their '50 day' budget, if it goes beyond the bare minimum cuts that Cable would recommend.
So what then? It’s clear he has to make at least a show of talking to Labour. (My bet is that Gordon Brown will make it clear at such talks that he is willing to resign, now or before the autumn party conferences, if that will smooth the way to an agreement). However, I believe that Clegg will conclude (as other leading figures in Labour will also conclude, whatever Brown’s view) that a coalition with the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, SDLP (plus Green/Alliance/Indep MPs) will be too greedy in its demands and too vulnerable to last. In any case, there could be no ‘easy fix’ which could quickly align their two manifestos in a way which would be acceptable to EITHER set of party members, so that any patching together would anger key party members, including MPs. So that won't work either.
This means that David Cameron will have to run a minority government. However, his '50 day' budget (presumably in mid-July) won't get through Parliament – all the opposition parties will lose face if they do not vote it down. Consequence – another election, presumably early September. Same result! Utter mess.
So, is there any way to avoid this? No doubt there are several – probably mostly unappealing. However, there is one route which would appeal to me – and, I guess, to many who fear the damage which a long-running Tory government would wreak, if allowed by the LibDems.
If Brown and Clegg agree that the foregoing scenario would be disastrous, they might also steel themselves (whatever their tribalistic tendencies) to agree that it requires drastic measures. So, it would make sense for them to agree to discuss the basis for a joint manifesto, over a period of months. It would be presented to their respective party conferences in the autumn. (Under a different Labour leader, probably). Both parties would have to swallow and accept that only such a manifesto gives any real chance of power after the following general election. I think they would buy it (while spitting forcefully, naturally).
In the meantime, Brown and Clegg could give Cameron notice that they will not vote on ANY economic or financial legislation until the Budget in March 2011 - he will have carte blanche to put through whatever he wants. But they would simultaneously put him on notice that, if they cannot accept Budget 2011, or any subsequent economic or social legislation, they will force a vote of 'no confidence' and intend to fight the next election together, with a view of forming a coalition. Finally, they should agree the subsequent coalition will run for four years, but then be reconsidered by both parties, with a view to returning to independent running for the subsequent election.
In my view, they would win (especially after the Tories have had a year to make a mess of the economy). And they would sacrifice relatively little of their core policies by working together for four years. And they would save the UK what might otherwise be some years of utter indecision.