Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Gordon through the looking-glass

In this strange looking-glass election, events can be interpreted one way when they happen, but come to resemble something very different a few days, or even a few hours, later. So what seemed on Friday morning like a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Liberal Democrats, by Sunday was beginning to resemble an agonising lose-lose situation in which Nick Clegg would be condemned by the electorate and his own party whether he chose to jump into the bed with the Tories, prop up Labour, or do nothing at all.

And Gordon Brown's offer to resign yesterday evening, which at the time appeared to be a gracious and selfless act, a political masterstroke even, in the cold light of day looks like a last desperate bid to cling to power - until September for himself, and indefinitely for his party, despite the fact that both were roundly rejected by the electorate.

Of course, as politicians and hacks queued up to remind us last night, Britain has a parliamentary not a presidential system, and the incumbent party has a right, a duty even, to attempt to form a government - even if it garnered significantly fewer votes and seats than its rival. But perception is important too, and in this time of deep disillusionment with politicians of all stripes, how will it look if the parties that came second and third (not to mention fourth, fifth and sixth) gang up to prevent the party that came first (even it was a rather wobbly first) from assuming power?

And in the same way that the electorate handed Clegg a poisoned chalice last Thursday, so it can be argued that, on Monday night, Gordon Brown saddled his successor, whoever that might be, with the prospect of leading an unpopular and unstable coalition, with even less personal legitimacy (as yet another unelected prime minister) than he himself had during his time as premier. Assuming that David Miliband is the favourite, is it too perverse and Machiavellian to see this as Brown's last act of revenge against the Blairites?

Unpalatable though it is, I'm slowly coming round to the John Reid and David Blunkett position: that Labour should do the right thing (strategically as well as morally) and let the Tories have a go, with or without the Lib Dems, using the opportunity to regroup under a new leader with refreshed policies. Then, at the inevitable second election, whether in the autumn or in a year or two's time, Labour will be able to present itself to the nation as a renewed and principled opposition, rather than as the tainted leaders of an illegitimate and compromised coalition.

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