There are ornately-feathered birds in New Guinea that have less bizarre mating rituals than Labour and the Lib Dems. The two parties need to show that it isn’t impossible to work with one another in a future coalition while also keeping their own supporters reassured that they’re not desperately keen to jump into a bed with another party that activists find themselves embroiled in dirty by-election and local fights with. Hence the weird back-and-forth dances and plenty of displays of aggression that we’ve seen over the past couple of months. So Ed Balls in January suggested Nick Clegg’s head would not be the price of a Coalition after all with the Lib Dems and was immediately slapped down by Clegg. Then this week Clegg softened his language on Labour, telling Steve Richards on Radio 4 that Ed Miliband’s party had ‘changed’. That wasn’t just slapped down by Miliband but was also followed by a story in this morning’s Sun that Labour was after Clegg’s seat in Sheffield Hallam.
In case you’ve been in a high state of excitement all morning about the idea of Clegg being toppled rather than occupying his Deputy Prime Minister’s throne for the rest of eternity, it’s worth noting the following:
1. Labour are the third party in Clegg’s seat at the moment. Their enthusiasm might be helped by the Tories’ slowcoach strategy in selecting a Conservative candidate to stand in the seat, but now that the boundary changes have failed, Clegg’s 15,284 majority is safe.
2. Students, who Labour think could turn against Clegg in angry droves in this university town, aren’t always registered to vote in their university towns but in their hometowns instead.
3. Decapitation strategies aren’t very effective. The Lib Dems of all people know that as they tried it with the Tories and many of their targets sit unscathed in Cabinet today.
Now we’ve got that out of our system, there are two serious points from this funny Coalition Mating Dance that our yellow and red friends are doing. The first is that Labour has been struggling to work out whether it should make accommodating noises about coalition, or bullish bellows about majority government. This is partly as a result of tensions between different groups in the party who think that one is possible and the other is not. Today the majority group is making the most noise. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
The second is that the Lib Dems are very carefully navigating their way to a point that is equidistant between Labour and the Tories. This is partly for policy reasons as Clegg thinks that both parties have pulled away from the centre ground (at the Speccie, we think this makes politics more interesting, but there you go), and he sees a cohort of voters stuck there without any centrist party to turn to. But it’s also because Clegg wants to set the Lib Dems up as the natural party of government, and one that improves any government of any colour.
The grid on Clegg’s wall seems to be a daily intervention from one of his ministers on the naughty Tories and their evil policies, peppered with a monthly coo at Labour. Similarly, we haven’t heard the last from Labour on how it could work with the Lib Dems. Or, if the Lib Dems are doing the cooing, how much it hates them. Coalition mating rituals are funny old things.