Having campaigned all week for Sarah Teather and the Brent Liberal Democrats, a seat which we sensationally won with an 11% swing, I have only just had a chance to reflect on the goings-on nationally - sleep deprivation is my excuse - so here's my take on it all...
What's clear from the results is that with the largest share of the vote, and the largest number of seats, the Conservative Party does have a claim, in Nick Clegg's words,
to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest
Clearly the Tories don't have a majority in their own right, and so seek the support of the Lib Dems to govern - but support in this case could well mean any one of several things.
In his pitch to the Lib Dems, Cameron said the following (which I must admit I missed as I was catching up one some shut-eye):
One option would be to give other parties reassurances about certain policy areas and then seek their agreement to allow a minority Conservative government....But I am prepared to consider alternative options.It may be possible to have stronger, more stable, more collaborative government than that.There is a case for going further than an arrangement which simply keeps a minority Conservative government in office.So I want to make a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats.
Details of what this offer constitutes are scant as yet, but two things appear clear to me. One, Cameron's posturing on electoral reform is inadequate, not just from a partisan perspective in that it's central to the Lib Dem ethos, but also from the public's perspective. Just look at the numbers: with 6% less of the vote nationally than Labour (23% to 29%, or 6.8 million votes to Labour's 8.6 million), the Liberal Democrats ended up with 201 fewer seats - 57 to Labour's 258. So to most Liberal Democrats, and I'm sure for most of the public, anything less than a serious shift in position from Cameron regarding electoral reform will n0t be compensated for by offers of ministerial positions and perks - sorry, but that has to be taken as a given. And two, such an offer is made not because of any fundamental common ground between the parties, but, as the words about 'going beyond a minority government' show, because Cameron needs Clegg's support to push his legislative agenda through - and yet somehow I don't see Lib Dem MPs traipsing obediently through to support any measures that Tory party HQ throws up, no matter what the consequences.
That is not to say that the Lib Dems and Tories cannot work together - the above is a real barrier only to a formal coalition in my view, and if the Tories showed the willingness to compromise somewhat on electoral reform, a range of other options are available. My preferred option? An agreement to abstain on a Tory Queen's speech, which would permit the business of government to proceed with a minority in charge, not only allows us to continue to press for the reform we stand for, but for the nation to get what it voted for - a Conservative government, lead by David Cameron, but without the majority that would result in their policies being implemented regardless of the national interest.
That's what I'd prefer, whether that will happen is another matter. I don't think it's a viable option to prop up a Labour government even if the Clegg-Cameron talks fail to produce sufficient agreement for coalition - Labour just doesn't have the mandate to govern any more. So it really is down to Cameron and his party to accept that in order to get into government, they will simply have to work with Lib Dems in one form or another - the next 48 hours or so will prove whether this is possible. Be prepared for all sorts of scaremongering from the Tories about how anything less than a formal coalition, with a mandate to barge through economic measure which we know will only benefit the few not the many, will placate 'the markets' - be prepared also to defend the cause of collaborative government against the sectional interests of the markets, because it's high time finance stopped holding a gun to the head of democracy. The public has spoken, and it's now up to Tory and Lib Dem MPs to come to an agreement - better a stable one than one rushed out in time for the opening trading on the FTSE come Monday morning...