Paul Linford: A warning from Germany for Mr Clegg

The Journal's former political editor on the fate that could await the Liberal Democrats - and the coalition that may drag Britain leftwards

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

A generation ago, a German politician called Hans-Dietrich Genscher set a template for political survivalism by managing to remain as foreign minister and vice-chancellor for 18 years under governments of both left and right.

The leader of the centrist Free Democrats, Herr Genscher managed to form a series of coalitions with the social democrat Helmut Schmidt on the one hand and his conservative successor Helmut Kohl which kept him at Germany’s cabinet table from 1974 until 1992.

At one stage in the current Parliament, it looked as though Nick Clegg, leader of Britain’s version of the FDP, might have been set to emulate him by serving as Deputy Prime Minister in both Tory and Labour-led administrations.

But as the Liberal Democrats poll ratings have continued to plummet – reaching a 25-year low of 6pc this week – speculation about what may happen in the event of another hung Parliament has started to turn elsewhere.

It now seems very unlikely that the Lib Dems will have the numbers, on their own, to sustain either a minority Conservative or Labour government in power after May 7.

More likely options at this stage are a coalition of the right between the Tories, Ukip and the Ulster Unionists, or some sort of rainbow coalition of the left involving Labour, the Greens and the Scottish National Party.

It is this latter scenario which is starting to open up intriguing possibilities for voters in traditional Labour heartlands such as the North East who have long despaired of the party’s rightward drift over the past two decades.

Could it be that the SNP, thwarted in its main aim of securing Scottish independence in last year’s referendum, might inadvertently have found a new role, namely shifting the centre of gravity of UK politics as a whole decisively to the left?

Well, anyone who has listened to SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon over recent days and weeks could be in no doubt as to the answer.

First, she threw a veritable hand-grenade into the vexed issue of the ‘English Question’ by declaring that SNP MPs would now vote on so-called ‘English-only’ matters such as health, in what appeared to be an attempt to head-off possible NHS privatisation under the Tories.

This week she went further, setting out an avowedly anti-austerity agenda and urging Labour leader Ed Miliband to adopt a “more moderate” approach to deficit reduction if he wanted the backing of SNP MPs in Westminster.

It was a fairly transparent attempt to set out the terms for a possible SNP-Labour coalition at a time when many are beginning to see this as the likeliest election outcome.

At the same time, clear synergies between the SNP’s worldview and those of other traditional Labour heartlands are starting to emerge, as evidenced this week’s love-in between the SNP and the recently-formed North East Party.

Members of the NEP paid a visit to the Scottish Parliament this week to “build links” with colleagues north of the border.

Afterwards Susan McDonnell, who is standing for the NEP in Easington, said: “I admire the progressive policies of the SNP in Scotland and the benefits they have brought to the people. Achievements such as these are just some of those we in the North East Party want to emulate here in the North East region.”

The SNP’s Christine Grahame MSP reciprocated with: “It goes without saying that the North East Party and the SNP are very different organisations, but there are lots of parallels in what we hope to achieve.”

This is but one very small manifestation of a much larger phenomenon - the coming together of a broad alliance of left-leaning voters ahead of an election where right and left are more polarised than at any time since 1992.

The Liberal Democrats would once have been seen as part of that “progressive” body of opinion, and the natural coalition partner for Labour, but forfeited this status by their decision to join David Cameron in 2010.

Which sort of brings me back to where I came in, with Hans-Dietrich Genscher and the Free Democrats, who in 2013 went from being the perpetual junior coalition partners to failing to win any seats in the German Parliament.

Should a similar fate now await Mr Clegg and his colleagues, they cannot say they were not warned.

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