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A hung Parliament would be the breaking - not the making - of the Liberal Democrats

Brown Clegg and Cameron It's amazing how much airtime and how many column inches one single opinion poll can generate - and I think the Ipsos-Mori poll published in yesterday's Observer certainly got more than its fair share.

That said, if the poll - which was the first in a long time to suggested that a hung Parliament is one the cards - had the effect of reminding Conservatives of the need not to be complacent, then that is all to the good: as I have argued before, any talk of a Tory landslide is not only premature but potentially counterproductive.

Nonetheless, the talk of a hung Parliament set the hare running again on what the Liberal Democrats would do in the event of them holding the balance of power. And here's what their party leader, Nick Clegg, told Andrew Marr yesterday:

"I start from a very simple first principle. It is not Gordon Brown or David Cameron or Nick Clegg who are kingmakers in British politics, it's the British people. The votes of the British people are what should determine what happens. Whichever party has the strongest mandate from the British people, it seems to me obvious in a democracy they have the first right to seek to try and govern, either on their own or with others."

The press are today divided as to exactly what this means. The Independent's political correspondent, Michael Savage, concludes:

"The Liberal Democrats would support whichever party wins the most seats if both the Tories and Labour fail to secure an overall majority after the next election."

But the Guardian's Allegra Stratton disagrees:

"Clegg's comments show he regards the number of votes won rather than the number of seats to be paramount."

There's clearly a moot point there, but leave that aside and let us suppose the Conservatives had more votes and more seats than Labour in a hung Parliament scenario (I add, of course, that I want to see a Conservative majority, but I am not being complacent, Tom Harris).

From what Clegg said yesterday, he is accepting that he would not be in a position to prop up a Labour administration that has just been given the boot. That said, I simply cannot see him being able - even if he wanted - to actively support a minority Conservative Government.

Some of the younger generation of LIb Dem MPs have genuine aspirations to get hold of red boxes - and some of those would not find themselves uncomfortable in a Cameron administration. However, in my experience, the bulk of the Lib Dem grassroots still hold the Conservatives in contempt and would not tolerate their party supporting a minority Tory administration (and I don't believe for a moment that Cameron would give them their demand of PR for Westminster elections in any case).

As such, I would challenge the received wisdom that a hung Parliament would be the making of the Lib Dems. Having failed to support a minority government, a new general election would surely be called sooner rather than later and the electorate would then have a starker choice than ever of whether they wanted the Conservatives or Labour to run the country. This would most likely see the Lib Dems' tally of seats reduced back to pre-1997 levels and their chance of breaking the mould smashed again.

Jonathan Isaby 

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