I can hear the Clegg haters on Twitter responding to the title I’ve given this article already: with any luck, dead and buried. But as I’ve already highlighted the central importance the Liberal Democrats, through the magic that is the First Past the Post voting system, will probably have on who governs post-May 2015, as 2014 recedes into permanent memory I thought now might be an opportune time to discuss scenarios.
There are three essential ones, in my view. Within each one, of course, there exists a range of micro-possibilities. But it is the big picture that concerns me here and now.
1. The Lib Dems hold the balance of power in a hung parliament and form either another coalition with either Labour or the Tories, or prop up one of them in a minority situation
Many will jump in here and state that the key thing that will make this scene possible, apart from obviously neither the Tories nor Labour getting a majority for themselves, is that the Lib Dems must end up with more seats than the SNP. This isn’t necessarily so; the vagaries of Scottish politics mean the Nats have closed several doors already, such as forming a government with or indeed even propping up the Conservatives. Even for Labour, dealing with the Lib Dems would probably be preferable to working with a party that just wiped them out in one of their heartlands and would come equipped with intentionally impossible demands.
So if there’s another Con-Lib coalition come December 31st of next year, things will probably look remarkably similar in many ways to the way they do now: mostly the same personnel, doing the same jobs. The only big difference is we’ll all have to hear about the EU more than we do already (oh the joys…). If there’s a Lib-Lab pact of any kind, calling what things look like at the end of 2015 is incredibly difficult given how totally and remarkably unprepared anyone is for this scenario. Probably some sort of constitutional crisis.
The other possibility within this category would be a Labour-SNP-Lib Dem coalition, which would be the wackiest thing since Wacky McWacky went to Wackytown, and would only happen if it was the only stable government possible. Then again, it may be the only stable government possible.
2. The Lib Dems hang onto a reasonable number of seats; one of the big two ends up with a majority anyhow
This wouldn’t be a complete catastrophe by any means for the Lib Dems. Stand back and watch while the Tories demonstrate what differentiation really means, or that a Labour government means cuts galore anyhow. There would likely be a change of leader within the Lib Dems, regardless of how many seats were held onto. December 31st, 2015 in this scenario would almost certainly see the Lib Dems being up in the polls, at the very least by dint of all of the other parties being incredibly unpopular for various reasons.
This I count as anything under twenty seats held. What happens under this scenario is the least clear. Certainly a new leader, probably a lurch to the left. How this plays with the membership and the public depends a lot on the government in place. Like in the last one, the Tories governing on their own puts the Lib Dems’ time in government into perspective, while a Labour government would be immediately unpopular, as it slashed and burned public spending.
This one asks the most questions of the party: what happens if the party is reduced to pre-1997 levels. I hope this isn’t a question we ever have to find the answer to.