Sunday, 15 March 2015

Clegg rules out SNP deal

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg today used a speech at party conference in Liverpool to rule out the prospect of a formal coalition deal with the SNP.

"So let me be clear", said Clegg, "just like we would not put UKIP in charge of Europe, we are not going to put the SNP in charge of Britain - a country they want to rip apart. It's just not going to happen."

This statement of the obvious seems to be generating a curious debate on social media, receiving praise and vilification in equal measure. And yet it seems - to me - an unremarkable decision to make.

Of course Clegg is playing to the gallery to some degree and he should be careful not to come across as yet another unionist bashing the SNP, which ultimately (as we've seen) only plays into their hands. But the substance of the statement - that a formal partnership with the SNP is unattainable and undesirable - makes perfect sense.

This is not a repeat of the misguided decision, in 2007, not to enter into coalition talks with the SNP in Holyrood on the basis that the independence referendum was a red line issue. I've explained, elsewhere, why I think that was wrong - certainly the wisdom of that decision can be questioned given the fact that the referendum became reality. That was a refusal to even countenance the idea of collaboration with the SNP on the basis of their raison d'etre, foolishly sending out a message that we only deal with Labour. What Nick Clegg is saying here is quite different.

He may as well have said that after the General Election the law of gravity will continue to work, that Scotland will continue to experience its fair share of rainy weather or that the English cricket team will still be useless at the one-day game.

This, lest anyone should forget, is a Westminster General Election. The SNP - quite rightly in my view - as a matter of principle do not vote in Westminster on matters reserved to Holyrood. They have not involved themselves in issues pertaining only to England, Wales and/or Northern Ireland. It has been pointed out to me that recently Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that SNP MPs may vote more widely than this in the future as there are very few "English" issues that don't affect Scotland in some way, either directly or indirectly; there can be no escaping however that the SNP's focus is not on governing Britain. Why should the SNP wish to do so?

Equally, why would any leader of the Liberal Democrats be seeking a three-party coalition? It would be notoriously difficult to make work and has to be the least desirable outcome from his perspective.

I can't imagine the SNP, whatever the media may wish to speculate, is remotely interested in any coalition. I am sure they are considering the various opportunities that a hung parliament, in which they held the balance of power, may provide - including informal deals. But they have no aspirations of being part of the UK government in Westminster. Nicola Sturgeon will not be worried about this rejection from Nick Clegg - instead, she'll have her mind on winning as many seats in the election as possible. No doubt Clegg has similar objectives.

Possible supply and confidence deals involving the SNP may make for an intriguing prospect, but realistically speaking these would not involve the Liberal Democrats in any three-way arrangement.

It's the kind of story the media love - which is a pity because, after a positive three-day conference there is so much more that can, and should, be being said about the Lib Dems (our fantastic mental health policy being a prime example).

The odds of an SNP-Lib Dem alliance with either the Conservatives or Labour Parties were always remote on account of both the required electoral arithmetic and the practicalities of making it work. The truth is that the SNP have no such desire to undermine themselves by governing the UK, and anyone believing that they would either as an extremely limited grasp of political reality or works for the Daily Mail (which are, self-evidently, not mutually exclusive).

More interestingly, while he accused Nigel Farage's party of "offering...division and blame" Clegg didn't say whether he'd put UKIP in charge of Britain. Which frankly seems a scarier prospect...

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