Are the Tories reacting wisely to Cleggmania?

Chris Fisher, political editorWhat's more scary - a hung parliament or a Tory government in which George Osborne is chancellor of the exchequer? Political editor Chris Fisher wonders whether the Conservatives are reacting wisely to 'Cleggmania'.Chris Fisher, political editor

What's more scary - a hung parliament or a Tory government in which George Osborne is chancellor of the exchequer? Political editor Chris Fisher wonders whether the Conservatives are reacting wisely to 'Cleggmania'.

As they began another day's campaigning yesterday, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron must have been struggling to conceal their disappointment and trepidation after seeing the figures in the ComRes poll in the Independent.

Labour remained stuck at 28pc - a figure not much above the 27.6pc voting share it obtained in the 1983 election when Michael Foot led it to a landslide defeat against Margaret Thatcher. And the Tory 32pc figure was actually lower than the 32.3pc slice of the vote the party secured in the last general election in 2005 under Michael Howard. The Liberal Democrats were on 31pc.


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It wasn't just one poll. Yesterday's 'poll of polls' figures were: Labour 28pc, Tories 33, Lib Dems 29. There had been little movement in these stats for quite a few days. (Today's ComRes figures are: Labour 29pc, Tories 33 and Lib Dems 29.) And there is little more than a week left to polling day. So at both the Labour and Conservative HQs, there must be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. The electorate has got a long way from a script of 13 years of Labour rule being followed by a Tory majority government. From the non-election of October 2007 right through to the end of end of last winter it seemed that David Cameron was heading for an outright victory. From about November, however, a hung parliament started to make ground on a Conservative win, and that option suddenly acquired rocket boosters when Nick Clegg did well in the first leaders' debate on TV last Thursday week.

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There was a possibility that the Lib Dem surge would prove a one or two day wonder; but it carried through to the second televised debate. Mr Clegg performed well again, but many people - including me - thought that if he'd won again it was only by the skin of his teeth. This could have caused the Lib Dem bubble to burst; but so far it hasn't happened.

Consequently we remain deeply in hung parliament territory. So real is the prospect, indeed, that the Conservatives devoted a party political broadcast last night to warning the electorate of the dangers that would allegedly attend such an outcome. It took the form of a spoof PPB for the Hung Parliament Party - the emblem of which was a noose - and its spokesman, a Clegg look-alike, promised 'behind closed-door politics', indecisive and weak government, a paralysed economy and a second election in no time at all.

Was this a good idea? Aren't the Tories supposed to be exuding confidence about victory, rather than voicing concern about the consequences of their not winning? Shouldn't the televised press conference at which the PPB was launched have been fronted by someone other than shadow chancellor George Osborne - who seems to frighten quite a few people off the idea of voting Conservative? And didn't it push a long way into the realm of negative hyperbole?

Would a hung parliament really lead to lengthy political deadlock and economic trauma, if not the end of civilisation as we know it? It could result in the first two, but surely it doesn't have to. If there is something inherently wrong and destructive about a hung parliament, then why has Germany managed to live and prosper with one for just one year short of half a century - and in that time cope with the absorption by the old West Germany of the many economic problems of the former East Germany?

The Scots and Welsh have come to live with hung parliaments under their devolution arrangements, and there is no good reason why they couldn't become the norm rather than the great exception at Westminster too. Essentially, they just require two or more parties to be prepared to move away from instinctive tribalism and work together rather than against each other. In both Labour and Conservative circles, however, there is great resistance to this idea from people who are welded to the practice of single party-government, even though it sometimes means being government by the party they hate the most.

One advantage of such an arrangement, we are repeatedly told, is 'strong government'. And that can be true. It is virtually inconceivable that Margaret Thatcher could have brought the political and economic transformation she did in 1979-90 under a proportional representation and hung parliament system; indeed, she would never have become prime minister.

But was the Major (majority) government of 1992-97 strong? Have we really had strong government under Mr Brown? And couldn't Tony Blair have been much the same prime minister (apart from going to war in Iraq) as the head of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition?

An ongoing weakness in our system has been the operation of majority government on a foundation of minority support. Even in the Thatcher landslide of 1983, the Tories won only 42.4pc of the votes, and in the Blair landslide 14 years later Labour secured only 43.2pc. So, from day one those two prime ministers had over 55pc of the voters against them. And this feature has been exacerbated by reduced elector turnout. In 2005 Labour won its third term with the backing of 35.3pc of the voters and 21.6pc (about one in five) of the electorate.

A Tory or Labour win this time would also be achieved, it seems, with the support of well under 40pc of the voters. But a Tory/Lib Dem or Labour/Lib Dem coalition could claim the backing of up to 60pc or more of them. Wouldn't that be a much better base for implementation of the programme of very tough spending curbs and tax rises that we all know are necessary, but which - as the Institute for Fiscal Studies emphasised yesterday - all of the three main parties are failing to own up to?

If this reads like a PPB for the Hung Parliament Party, I make no apology. Such an election result could prove bad for Britain, but only if it's made to be by people who ought to know and do better. If it's what the electors/voters of Britain collectively fancy - perhaps as the best means of bringing about truly radical change to our political system - why should they be put off it by heavily manufactured scare stories?

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