There’s a fun discussion taking place on a friend’s facebook page about which operatic characters remind us of the party leaders in this year’s election.
I’ve gone for Gordon Brown as Wotan [Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen], the powerful, one-eyed brooding figure who’s made the running in the past, but now has a few problems and can’t work out how he can rescue his agenda without screwing everything up (and, as he sees it, at least, risking the end of the world), and who is doomed to fade into nothingness.
Nick Clegg is Don Carlos [Verdi: Don Carlo(s)]. He thinks he’s a romantic hero and a great crusader for political liberty, but he doesn’t really understand the nature of the game he’s playing in, and will ultimately get screwed over by more ruthless participants. (I’ve only a hazy memory of the plot of this one, so apologies if this isn’t getting it quite right.)
And David Cameron? It’s a tricky one, but I reckon he’s Escamillo [Bizet: Carmen]. Superficially attractive, but really a shallow, arrogant, pompous arse — though one with the considerable advantage of being the only major protagonist still alive and not in police custody at the end of the drama.
Obviously, it’s the Lib Dems that have made this election both interesting and enjoyable. If it were just a straight Lab – Con fight, then we’d be seeing the formation of a Conservative government with a large majority, and to the extent that that outcome’s not really on the cards, we the (substantial majority of the) people have good reason to be grateful to the Liberal Democrats.
That said, I’m finding it hard to see how the party will be able to do well out of the parliamentary shenanigans that are likely to follow. In the first place, there are the kinds of considerations laid out in this post from Brian Barder, which walk us through what the apparently agreed constitutional sequence of events is going to be in the event of a hung parliament. Now, I’m not so concerned about this kind of thing, as I think Brown is likely to quit fairly promptly in the event of a heavy defeat, for the inter-related reasons of not wanting to come across like Ted Heath after February 1974, and not wanting to doom Labour to an even worse defeat in a second general election, having visibly tried and failed to hold onto power after coming in third. But until he quits, the political initiative rests with him; and as soon as he quits, it passes over to David Cameron. People write as if it’s the choices that Clegg makes that will prove decisive after Thursday; but he’ll only ever be reacting to agenda set by others, and “screwing over the Lib Dems” will always be pretty high on those agenda.
If the Lib Dems were a clearly disciplined parliamentary force, and if Clegg were clearly a superb parliamentary tactician, then things might be different. But not even Lib Dem propagandists pretend that either of these is true. The Lib Dems are less centralised than the other parties, which suits them well when it comes to local campaigning, but this will be a source of weakness in a serious political fight at Westminster. And another of those things that isn’t being discussed much is this, that if there’s a hung parliament, the Lib Dems will be under sustained political pressure for the first time in their 20+ year existence, and there’s no reason to think that they’ll handle it at all well. (They can’t even get enough of a grip to run Oxford City Council, for goodness’ sake; it’s just fanciful to think they’ll somehow begin to function effectively as a political force when the stakes are about a billion times higher.)
So on the most straightforward reading of the situation, if there’s a hung parliament, Clegg’s bluff will be called. He can threaten to bring down a Tory government in a vote on the Queen’s Speech, but he’ll only perform if there’s reason to think that the Lib Dems will do even better in a second general election — and if I were David Cameron I’d be relishing the prospect of fighting all those Lib Dem / Tory marginals again in those circumstances. So what’s Clegg to do – if he isn’t to waste what ought to be the best Liberal opportunity since the Second World War? Answers in comments, please.