I have been puzzling about the sheer intensity of the efforts exerted by Downing Street to drag Nick Clegg from the arms of the Conservatives. The obvious answer is that no prime minister goes quietly and certainly not someone like Gordon Brown, who spent a political lifetime in the quest for the keys of No 10.

But while it is easy to see why the Liberal Democrats have been playing along (leverage in their talks with David Cameron) surely the Labour leadership does not really think it could stay on in government with the support of the Lib Dems and a ragbag of smaller parties? The arithmetic doesn’t work. Nor does the politics for the Lib Dems: you don’t win plaudits from the voters for sustaining in power an unpopular government that has just been defeated at the polls.

As for Mr Brown’s offer on voting reform, the Lib Dems I have spoken too are far from convinced that he could actually deliver. Plenty of Labour MPs have said they would die in the ditch before backing PR.

One senior Labour figure offers an alternative explanation. Much as Labour thinks there is precious little prospect of a deal with Mr Clegg, it can do its damndest to prevent the Lib Dem leader from forging a durable pact with Mr Cameron. By exciting unrest among Lib Dem ranks, Labour can ensure that any arrangement between the Tory and Lib Dem leaders is minimalist and inherently unstable. Labour (with a new leader) would then be in a strong position to reap the rewards at another election a year or two from now – after, that is, the Tories and Libs had done the dirty work on public spending and taxes.

Perhaps all this is too Machiavellian. But certainly the mood among Lib Dem MPs seems less than enthusiastic about a serious deal with Mr Cameron; and to make matters more complicated still, the Tory backbenches are disinclined to give their leader any more rope on voting reform.

Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article