General Election 2010: Liberal Democrat tail wagging the Labour dog? I remember that

With the opinion polls suggesting that we’re heading for a hung parliament – or a “balanced parliament”, as Nick Clegg calls it – many are asking whether Britain is facing its first coalition government since the war. It is being presented as a step into the unknown. But there is a template for what might happen after May 6, and it is not an edifying sight.

Anyone expecting our leaders to pull together for the good of the nation will be disappointed: prepare yourselves instead for endless wheeling and dealing in what are now smoke-free rooms, and any amount of secret backstairs bargaining. Prepare yourselves, too, for an administration with a distinctly yellow hue. For having already tried a coalition with Labour, and believing themselves to have been “stiffed” over the number of ministerial jobs – and the limousines that go with them – they received, the Liberal Democrats are determined not to make the same mistake again.

To get a flavour of how it might pan out, we need to rewind to May 1999, to a fifth-floor room in a disused council office building on Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge.

It was there that the Liberal Democrats negotiated their first taste of government in Britain for half a century. Because of proportional representation, no party could form a majority administration in the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament. Labour, with 56 of the 129 seats in the assembly, had to go cap in hand to the Lib Dems. Despite their having finished a distant fourth, with only 17 seats, they became instant power-brokers.

It wasn’t hard to get things moving: for a start, the two party leaders were close friends. The late Donald Dewar, the acerbic Labour First Minister and “father of devolution”, and Jim Wallace, the jovial but wily Lib Dem leader, were both Scottish lawyers, and had got to know each other well during their long years on the opposition benches in the Commons. No sooner had the results been declared than meetings were arranged between the two in Dewar’s office, on the top of the former headquarters of Lothian Regional Council.

At first, Dewar was reluctant to agree to a formal coalition. But he was egged on by his lieutenants, who saw that there was no alternative to a deal, and the serious haggling began. Over the weekend that followed the election, Dewar and Wallace remained ensconced in the former’s large office, while Labour’s negotiators (Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell, both later Labour First Ministers) and their Lib Dem counterparts (Nicol Stephen and Tavish Scott, both subsequently senior ministers) locked horns in adjoining rooms.

Across the street, in Deacon Brodie’s public house, assembled hacks waited for titbits of information. They weren’t long in coming; early sticking points were the Lib Dems’ opposition to the introduction of tuition fees in Scottish universities and one of their MSP’s refusal to countenance a coalition until the £7.50 tolls on the new Skye road bridge (which happened to connect parts of a Lib Dem constituency) were abolished. Compromise was quickly reached. Dewar and Wallace kicked the fees issue into the long grass by setting up a commission, and the Skye tolls were scrapped.

Those deals set the scene for eight years of coalition, which ended in 2007 with the SNP’s election victory, after which the Lib Dems refused, on what they insisted was a point of principle, to govern with a party hell-bent on breaking up the United Kingdom. However, during those halcyon days of joint responsibility, the Lib Dem ministers in Edinburgh lorded it over their London counterparts. Bigwigs like Charlie Kennedy and Ming Campbell could only look on in envy at the ministerial limousines and Civil Service hangers-on of their erstwhile minions.

Of course, it went to their heads: Mr Scott, as transport minister, was dubbed “Lavish Tavish” after being accused of misusing his official car. But in spite of this taste of power, the Lib Dems believe that they didn’t get a particularly good deal out of Labour. In the first devolved administration, they had four ministers – two junior and two senior, including Mr Wallace as Deputy First Minister. They will be determined to do much better in any wrangling at Westminster: they are expected to demand the position of Deputy Prime Minister for Nick Clegg, as well as a minimum of six other ministerial posts, including three or four of Cabinet rank.

Labour should be aware, too, that the Lib Dems are no patsies. It was their team, not the Liberals’, who made most concessions during their shotgun marriage in Scotland. In fact, the Lib Dems got almost everything they wanted: bridge tolls abolished, tuition fees postponed, a new £300 million railway line to their stronghold in the Borders (dubbed the “Railway to Nowhere” by disgruntled Labour backbenchers) and – hardest of all for Labour to swallow – PR in local government.

During that coalition, the Lib Dem tail most certainly wagged the Labour dog. If we give them the same chance on May 6, we will all have to start dancing to Nick Clegg’s tune.

source: telegraph.co.uk

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