... and: how should we behave, the (metaphorical) morning after? (I can't type that phrase without remembering the band in The Poseidon Adventure, do you remember? They sang There's got to be a morning after, in a plaintively melodic minor key, just before the iceberg struck and the ship went down: not, perhaps, the best image to have in mind just now. Anyway).
How it was for us:
- Astonishingly good, but not good enough. More like the mirror of 1992 than should have been the case.
How we should behave:
- As fully-paid up supporters of a Change Coalition. (I think the phrase is due to Guido or to Iain. It's a good one). Politics isn't football - something that may come as a surprise to those who treat the most important national conversation as an endless Spurs-Arsenal grudge match (a particularly New Labour characteristic, come to think of it) - and failure to win the league doesn't mean retiring from the field until next season when a new manager will 'win us the silver' like what we did in the 80s. We should aim for a Cameron-led Tory-LibDem administration that can stay in office for a reasonable length of time, for at least the next twelve months. No-one, surely, wants another election before the summer?
Why should we do this:
- It makes strategic sense. Everything we ("we" here means "people who think like I do") want to achieve with power (that is: deficit reduction, a radical rebalancing in the relationship between state and citizenry, far-reaching education reforms and real changes to the machinery of politics (more later)) could be done without LibDem parliamentary support, had we the majority to do so - but we don't. It can also be done, even without a Tory majority, with LibDem parliamentary support - so why not be glad that this is the case, and proceed to enact it. Moreover, I would guess that it can safely be assumed that the, er, left-field measures in the LibDem manifesto - the amnesty, the Euro - will no longer feel quite so important to the Orange Bookers this afternoon as they did last week. Who knows? Perhaps working with Tories will help persuade them to ditch their attachment to the LibDem's vote-losing left-wing tendency and realign permanently. Liberals with a long memory will not find the idea of gradually moving into coalition, then union, with Conservatives a strange one.
- Tactical (aka 'tribal Tory') reason. What's the biggest problem facing Britain, now? The deficit reduction, right? What will be the dominant media narrative if we don't get some sort of Tory administration in place by early next week? Proportional Representation. Never mind the contradiction between a media-class simultaneously decrying a hung parliament and demanding a system guaranteed to deliver such parliaments in perpetuity: if we don't bind the sensible LibDems into government, now, they will agitate so shrilly for PR that the media, with its attention span of a fruit-fly, will forget how badly they performed last Thursday, cast them as victims of the evil FPTP system, and proceed to talk up Cleggmania all over again. I don't want this to happen, to put it mildly. Three weeks of listening to the Today programme fawn over Nick Clegg's every utterance is sufficient for anyone's lifetime.
- No, but I understand the attraction of this. If I thought we could manage the period of government until conditions were ripe for a second election, this is the outcome I'd hope for. But we can't wait to deal with the deficit, whether we govern as a minority or in coalition. If we try to go it alone, then all the difficult, painful decisions will be laid at our door - by both the opposition parties and their all spending is good, in and of itself allies at the BBC. If we did manage to find any parliamentary time to enact our civil liberty or education reform agenda, the Liberals will tell the world that we're only doing so at their behest, regardless of how eternally central those plans were to our manifesto. Finally they would withdraw their support and force an election at a time of their choosing: no doubt in the middle of a particularly difficult debate about budget cuts. We would have performed a useful national function (in dealing with the deficit) but permitted a party which refused to face up to the budgetary arithmetic to cast itself as on the side of the angels. I don't fancy fighting an election campaign on those grounds.
A little more on political reform. I remain to be convinced of the merits of PR, and regard its more zealous adherents to be in thrall to a form of arithmetic fetishism. But we have a solid block of reform that we have either already vowed to introduce, or have an open mind about: fairness in constituency size (the vociferous way that the left attacks this reveals something about how much they like the status quo, I think), fixed-term parliaments, the right of recall of an MP, citizens' initiatives, open-source government, and so on. I don't think we'd have anything to fear by building on this, by holding a Commission to investigate the impact of the many, many different forms of PR, and then holding a 'preferendum', so long as the choice wasn't just between the status quo and Nick Clegg's favourite algorithm. (Anyway - think of all the fun to be had in debating the voting system to be used in such a referendum. It couldn't just be first past the post, could it?).
It might be a good exercise to ask ourselves how Disraeli might have behaved in these circumstances. He'd have done anything to dish the whigs, I imagine, and to provide an executive that will balance the budget while protecting the poor. I don't think it's unbelievable to guess that he might have favoured:
- binding non-socialist Liberal Democrats into a Tory administration, to give us the parliamentary majority required to pass the necessary finance bills;
- ensuring that the Tories are the owners of any movement for political reform, so that our opponents are denied the right to fight on the side of the angels.