Imagine an alternative universe in which the following two things happened in May 2010: the Tories ended up after the general election with a tiny parliamentary majority (think the one they have now) and the Lib Dems did much better than they ended up doing (think three figure number of seats, as was confidently predicted by the pundits in the run in to polling day).
One other thing must be true of this alternate 2010 then if the two conditions above hold true: Labour would have done a lot worse. Like, 100-odd seats worse, which would have meant that they would have had roughly about the same number as the Lib Dems. They would have been the official opposition probably – but only just.
The reason this scenario interests me is that had this actually happened, despite the Tories having technically done better and won the election and Labour done considerably worse, I think the Tories would have been a lot worse off in 2015 as a result, while a non-Tory government would very likely be running the country now.
At first, tensions between the Lib Dems and Labour would have gone up, but they both would quickly have realised that calling a truce and ganging up on the Tories was mutually advantageous. Meanwhile, Cameron’s Conservatives would have had to oversee a whole host of cuts without the Lib Dems for cover. There would have been rebellions galore along the way inside the governing party’s ranks.
How Labour and the Lib Dems ended up working together would have been the real question in this never to be world; I think some sort of pact might have eventually been likely. In the face of an unpopular and divided Tory party and the right Labour leader (i.e. someone other than Gareth’s mate), this could have worked.
The real reason this little exercise actually interests me more than anything is that it made me realise just how much not getting a majority in 2010 has weirdly worked to the Tories long term advantage. Having to go into coalition with the Lib Dems had two distinct pluses for them in retrospect: one, a government from 2010-2015 that had a reasonable majority to use to solidify public trust in the Conservative’s supposed centrisism (some of it forced upon them by their coalition partners but ultimately advantageous to them); two, it destroyed a growing competitor in Clegg and the Lib Dems. Quite what part it played in Labour choosing two unelectable leaders in a row there’s no way to say, other than that it definitely happened in the real world whereas who knows what may have gone down in the universe in which the Tories won outright in 2010.
We all know what happened instead: the electorate rejected that promised by Cleggmania and handed the Lib Dems an admittedly large redundancy cheque in the form of getting to co-govern for five years. Labour emerged not as badly as they had feared; what effect this had on their subsequent desire to commit political suicide, who knows. But it’s strange, in politics as in life, how sometimes when you win you actually lose and vice versa.