“I remain of the view that the worst outcome next year would be either a Conservative or Labour only government – because only the Lib Dems can anchor the country in the centre ground.” – Nick Clegg
The Liberal Democrats are the only party to have formally announced their negotiation team. Seemingly the new kids in 2010, supporting Nick Clegg this time will be a team which after five years looks like seasoned government warriors.
Danny Alexander MP
The Chief Secretary will once again play a key role, and has already begun the process of drawing up a list of non-negotiable issue, something the party will be asked about in the election campaign. Closely tied in to the Osborne austerity plan during his time in the Treasury, his majority in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey is a healthy 8,700 but he may yet face a fight to keep out the SNP.
David Laws MP
At the heart of the talks in 2010 before a very short stint as minister, resignation and eventual recall to government, Mr Laws is Chair of the Manifesto Working Group and will play a pivotal role again in 2015. As a free market and social liberal, Laws was always seen as more closely aligned with the Conservatives than much of the party. Avoiding accusations that he is already lining up a deal with the Tories, he has stated the party will not ‘pre-negotiate’ a future coalition by watering down the Lib Dem manifesto.
Baroness Brinton steps into Tim Farron’s shoes as party President in 2015. She has already underlined the importance of a structured decision making process in a future negotiation, where the negotiating team frequently communicate and consult with the parliamentary party, Federal Executive and Federal Policy Committee. She has also backed the idea of forming a special
Federal Conference to debate and vote on the way forward. These suggestions should give additional influence to the party’s grassroots.
Steve Webb MP
Without ever gaining a great public profile, Steve Webb has built a reputation as a strong and capable minister within DWP, gaining respect across the political spectrum. This credibility, coupled with a strong intellect and grasp of the issues, will make him a key part of negotiations. Traditionally linked to the left of the party, he is on record recognising the alienation of many supporters during the coalition years and is likely to push for a distinctive and radical liberal policy contribution to the next programme for government rather than a broad compromise.
Lynne Featherstone MP
The Hornsey and Wood Green MP has been a minister throughout the coalition years without ever making the Cabinet table, providing a campaigning force through her work in equalities and international development. She has not been without controversy, with her attack on journalist Julie Burchill and more recently her opposition to allowing a visa for ‘dating guru’ Julien Blanc. But overall this experience may give her a good insight into how to build a platform with broad populist appeal.
The Tory negotiation team will, like the party’s policy platform, emerge nearer the time of the election, and the party leadership may well deny the need for negotiations right up to election day. But we can see some early stages of how the blue side will line up.
George Osborne MP
Considered support to the main Conservative lead of William Hague in 2010, Mr Osborne was undoubtedly the architect of the programme for government, aided by a broad agreement with Nick Clegg and David Laws on the need for a smaller state. This time around, he may have half an eye on future leadership of his party as well as the legacy of his time as Chancellor. His Budgets have demonstrated a real radicalism and in the few instances where he has been drawn into social issues he has shown a liberal streak. So his personal preferences might draw the Tories in interesting new directions if he is given scope to lead negotiations.
Jo Johnson MP
Mr Johnson has achieved the feat of playing a hugely influential role without ever raising his personal profile. In 2013 he was appointed by David Cameron as Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office to help develop the 2015 Tory manifesto with Minister for Policy Oliver Letwin. He also heads the Policy Unit for Number 10. He will have a view on Britain’s place in the world: as a Financial Times journalist he regularly extolled the benefits of EU membership and as a former New Delhi correspondent, he understands the challenge posed to Britain by the emerging economies.
David Cameron’s Chief of Staff was part of the negotiating team in 2010. His connections to the Liberal Democrats proved useful and may do so again, having worked for Paddy Ashdown when the former party leader was High Commissioner to Bosnia. These connections have occasionally proved too much for some Conservatives – and friends of Michael Gove have loudly questioned his loyalties – but he remains trusted by David Cameron.
Oliver Letwin MP
Although Letwin will not be the principal overseer of the manifesto this time around, he will likely play an influential role in coalition negotiation. The Minister of State in the Cabinet Office works across departments to ensure the smooth running of the coalition and is reportedly behind some of the key messages that unite the two parties. Reputed to enjoy high degree of trust with Danny Alexander, he is edging into elder statesman territory and while he will not be a front line election campaigner he will be a steady head in putting a policy platform together.
As James O’Shaughnessy says earlier in this book, the Labour line-up is difficult to predict, although we can anticipate a few candidates.
Ed Balls MP
Ed Balls ends the Parliament with an improved reputation following a mildly disastrous leadership bid and years of mockery over his command of Twitter. He remains the Tories’ main target in reminding voters of Labour’s economic track record and his personification of the style and strategy of the Brown years was a negative in negotiations in 2010. But Mr Balls earns his place at the table first by his widely recognised weight in policy, and second by improving relations between him and Nick Clegg. His thorough understanding of reputational and financial impacts of policy decisions will be critical to negotiations.
Douglas Alexander MP
Never a very high profile Labour figure, and with a Scottish accent which could become increasingly problematic in discussions of national government, Mr Alexander is nonetheless likely to land a key role in negotiations. Following the Scottish referendum, he was quick to warn parties that voters want change, and will be conscious of the threat to Labour
north of the border. But he is also leading the Labour campaign for the UK to stay in Europe, which represents the party’s best and only hope to generate some business support for a Labour-led administration.
Despite having spearheaded the Labour drive in 2010 to form a Lab-Lib Dem coalition, and being one of Ed’s closest policy advisers, Andrew Adonis may play a more backroom role this time round. Newsnight reported in April that Lord Adonis met with Clegg’s chief of staff Jonny Oates and Lib Dem donor Neil Sherlock, to discuss ‘mutual concern over Europe’.
Lucy Powell MP
Lucy Powell played a key role in Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign in 2010 and is known to be a deeply trusted ally. Her promotion to the shadow cabinet was though the cue for some disquiet in the Labour ranks, made worse by a leaked strategy document. Only an MP for three years, she has displaced some old hands and owes her position to her closeness to Ed Miliband, a leader otherwise not surrounded by loyalist MPs.
Harriet Harman MP
Labour’s deputy leader for eight years and a thirty-year veteran of parliament, Harriet Harman has served through Labour’s ups and downs, remaining something of a target for right wing journalists throughout. But her experience and reach within the party should position her well to construct and sell a deal to any sceptical party members. She will also be the most senior and accomplished woman involved in the negotiations – line-ups on all sides will be very male-dominated.
Lord Stewart Wood and Torsten Bell
The brains behind the Miliband operation, these two men are responsible for policy and strategy and will do much of the translation into a programme for government, but may leave the political deal-making and relationship-forging to others.
The other players
A whole cast of characters could become involved in the discussions after the next election. However, two in particular are most likely to be seen and heard as May progresses.
Nicola Sturgeon MSP
In her first speech as party leader, with big electoral gains on the horizon, Ms Sturgeon ruled out any possibility of coalition with the Conservatives, promising that “the SNP will never put the Tories into government”. When it comes to Labour, nothing has been ruled out. Having highlighted the tactical benefits of partnering with a Labour government who depended on SNP votes, Ms Sturgeon was clear about her top three areas of negotiation: more devolution; a “rethink” of austerity; and the future of Trident weapons on the river Clyde. Unspoken in all of this is the leverage the Scottish Government can apply on the issue of a future referendum.
A more modern and less dramatic performer than her predecessor Alex Salmond (who might yet reappear as a Westminster MP), Mrs Sturgeon still represents a formidable political figure, as proven by her unanimous selection as party leader. Her positioning so far is cooperative, but she has a strong tribal streak and feels empowered to drive a very hard bargain if given the chance.
Whether UKIP ends up with one seat or ten (and a lower number is still probably more likely), Nigel Farage is likely to be in high demand for media comment after the election. Whether he is in a position to influence the shape of the next government is a different question. Farage recently said he would “do a deal with the Devil”, or even Ed Miliband’s Labour, if it got him what he wanted – an in-out EU referendum. Perhaps recognising the implausibility of a UKIP secretary of state, he has alluded to a confidence and supply arrangement instead of a full-blown coalition deal in the event of a hung parliament, where his party would back ad hoc measures such as the Budget, but not hold ministerial posts.