Liberal Democrat MPs 'heartbroken' over Conservative coalition
Labour negotiators irritated Lib Dems by talking like ministers taking solicitations from visitors rather than equalsSenior Liberal Democrat MPs described themselves as "heartbroken" as their leaders made it clear that they wanted the party to ready itself for a deal with the Conservatives.
They convened Liberal Democrat MPs and the party's ruling federal executive for the largest meeting of the hung parliament negotiations so far. They met at the Local Government Association in Smith Square, in an office the party had last occupied right at the beginning of the negotiation on Saturday morning.
For most Lib Dem MPs, the prospect of a deal with Labour was dead within about four hours of Gordon Brown opening it up as an option by resigning on Monday afternoon, despite negotiations with the Labour party due to continue the next morning.
On Monday night Lib Dem MPs and activists were aghast as Labour MPs took turns on television to denounce the idea of a pact between their two parties as a "coalition of losers" even as the two teams of negotiators were in talks.
When their negotiating team reported back to their parliamentary party after their first two-hour meeting on Monday night there was shock.
Every one of the Lib Dem negotiators gave an individual report back of their meeting with Harriet Harman, Lord Mandelson, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Lord Adonis, and they each reached the same conclusion: that the Labour team were uninterested, with no movement on ID cards, the third runway at Heathrow, or increasing the proportion of renewable energy from 15% to 40%.
The Labour team's minds were said to be more focused on their own leadership prospects.
All reported back that the climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, was the "greatest disappointment" since they had regarded him as a fresh broom, unencumbered by the kind of instinctive dislike of electoral reform that some of his colleagues held. Others were angry that the Brown team had put up Ed Balls, the tribalist schools secretary. "I mean, Ed Balls in there? For goodness sake. That's not very serious," said one.
The Lib Dems were dismayed after what they believed were their strenuous efforts to keep Labour in the game, begun by Brown having a phone call with Vince Cable sometime on Friday.
A dinner of Lib Dem luminaries on Monday night, including former leader Lord Ashdown, saw them coming to terms with the end of the road for the Lib-Lab pact.
"The Tories offered everything and Labour nothing," said one. "If I gave you the two offers to us and put labels 'Party A' and 'Party B' at the top of them, you'd have thought the real Tory offer was the actual Labour offer and vice versa."
At Monday night's meeting Cable, among others, spoke of how he was reluctantly backing a Con-Lib deal.
So by first thing this morning, MPs loyal to the Lib Dem leadership set about methodically canvassing their parliamentary party, with three of them each phoning five or six MPs, those whom they expected to prove troublesome, persuading them of the deal's logic and reporting back at lunchtime that their support had been secured.
Had those 15 MPs voted against the motion tonight it would have been enough to prevent the Lib Dem leadership getting the three-quarters endorsement it needed. Going into the meeting, those MPs did not know how the federal executive would shake down.
By this afternoon the Labour team appeared to have shifted further towards the Lib Dems – they did come up with an offer on the third runway "in principle" and they seemed to come up with a better offer on increasing money for renewables "in principle" – but they irritated the Lib Dems by talking like government ministers taking solicitations from visitors, rather than equals, and saying they were not sure various demands could be put past Alistair Darling, the chancellor.
In particular, there was no movement on the Lib Dems' cherished policy that no one should pay tax on their first £10,000 of income. By the second meeting they said they had an agreement in "principle", but again, they would have to go back to Darling. "It was just tired old government. The 'mood music' was also terrible: they went into those meetings with Labour figure after Labour figure denouncing the deal. It just wasn't happening," one said.
Another said: "My focus was always how best to secure reform of the voting system and the only credible package came from the Tories. The brutal truth is that the Lib-Lab deal is now toast."
Amid emotional intergenerational strains, Nick Clegg has only partially persuaded his predecessors as party leader that he should take the Lib Dems into some kind of deal with the Tories. His mentor, Lord Ashdown, has found it hard to come to terms with but is said by close friends to be "halfway there", while Sir Menzies Campbell is not thought to have reconciled himself to the leadership's decision.
The party knows it will now be blamed by Labour for uncosted policies – its demands were said by Labour to add up to £22bn.
James Graham of the Social Liberal group said: "I think we could be wiped out for a generation by this decision, so anyone who thinks that Nick is making it because of self-interest is entirely wrong. Labour will spend the next two years saying we are traitors, we will probably be annihilated at the next election. But we have to get involved."
And there will be recriminations within the party. One leftwing member of the Lib Dems said: "I know we were trying to keep our dealings with Labour secret but it's just hard to tell whether we should have been tougher on Labour earlier, and then maybe we would now be further along in what Labour could offer us. But for now, I have been won over by the logic of the argument and the objective evidence."