How do you calculate a ‘moral victory’?
Although he started his political career in the Labour Party, once working as a special adviser to John Smith, Dr Cable emphasises that the Liberal Democrats would be happy to prop up the Conservatives if they won a â€œmoral victoryâ€ in a hung Parliament.
â€œIt would be arrogant for us to choose one or other. Whoever gets the largest number of seats . . . whether it is Conservative or Labour, we will work with either.”
There are three ways to read this quote. Firstly that it is an obvious statement of equidistance, no deal is off the table, and that there is no behind the scenes manoevring for a coalition with either main party at the moment. There is no change in policy, and nothing said that could not have just as easily come from the mouth of the actual Leader of the Party.
The second way to read this is that Vince Cable is tying his leader’s hands by setting out his personal limits on coalition agreements – ruling out supporting the second-placed party, even if their combined seats would deliver a majority. This would appear to be a guarded warning about propping up a government that failed to win the largest number of seats at the next election.
The third way I read this was that it was introducing an expectation of Gordon Brown. There has been this week, as Dr Cable will be more than aware, much speculation about a Labour-LD coalition which would include Sir Menzies Campbell as Speaker. This might just as easily be read as a warning shot that if the Prime Minister wants a deal, and wants the Lib Dems to tie themselves to his continuation in office, that he will need more than the Constitutional minimum (enough seats that by adding the LDs would allow him to form a majority) but rather a moral majority. The message to the PM seems to be ‘if you want a deal, you need to at least be the largest party’.
Several people have commented that the idea of ‘most seats’ is strange given the Lib Dem predeliction for proportional representation – surely, they insist, the Lib Dems should support the party that wins the popular vote, rather than the party that leads in the warped seat-count measure? There might be an idealogically purist argument here, but as long as we have FPTP elections, the Lib Dems’ path to government must recognise that they will have to deal with the largest party in Parliament, not the most popular party at the polls.
Of course, the most plausible reading of this quote is that it was never meant to deliver a significant message at all, and this is over-reading of a fairly light interview. If that’s the case, then I can’t help but feel that Dr Cable should perhaps not have allowed himself to be led into making any sort of statement about coalitions at all. Nick Clegg might well have some difficult and important decisions ahead of him in the next couple of years. Worrying about which potential coalition partner has won a ‘moral victory’ is perhaps an unhelpful additional burden this side of a General Election.