THE Liberal Democrats could opt out of coalition with either of the larger parties if next year’s general election is inconclusive, party president Tim Farron has said.
Negotiators in any coalition talks must make clear they are ready to “walk away” if the party cannot secure its red-line priorities, Mr Farron told a meeting on the fringe of the Lib Dem conference.
Unlike 2010, when the financial crisis made it imperative for Britain to have a stable majority government, the Liberal Democrats will be in a position after the 2015 poll of being able to sit back and allow Labour or Tories to attempt to govern as a minority administration, he suggested.
The Westmorland and Lonsdale MP is often tipped as a possible replacement for Nick Clegg, but he was staunch in his support for the leader, who he said had been an “outstanding” Deputy Prime Minister. And he condemned any Lib Dems positioning themselves for a post-election succession.
“Anybody who is giving headspace to there being anyone other than Nick as leader is letting the side down massively,” said Mr Farron. Describing next May’s election as “the toughest we have faced since 1992”, he said: “If you are wasting effort on thinking about what happens to yourself in seven or eight months’ time, then shame on you.”
Left-leaning Mr Farron is often viewed as more comfortable with the prospect of coalition with Labour than a repeat of the Tory/Lib Dem government of the past four years.
But he insisted that the third party will not be in a position to choose between potential partners, as parliamentary arithmetic is likely to dictate that only one coalition option will deliver a viable majority government.
Asked at the meeting hosted by The Times whether a hung parliament would present Lib Dems with a difficult choice between Labour and Tories, Mr Farron replied: “It only puts us in a difficult position if the utterly random and almost impossible circumstances turn out where our numbers could make a majority with either party.
“That will not happen. It’s probably about a million-to-one chance of that happening.
“We will either, in a balanced Parliament, have the option of going into coalition with one of the two parties or sitting back. That will be the only choice we have - it will not be a case of do we prefer Labour or Tories.”
Mr Farron said his preference was for a coalition producing a stable majority administration, but said that Lib Dem negotiators must not be so focused on that goal that the other parties feel they can “take us for granted”.
“You don’t go into coalition negotiations letting your potential partners think that you are absolutely going to roll over and have your tummy tickled and go into coalition whatever the outcome of those negotiations,” said Mr Farron.
“You have to in your own heart and mind - and in their hearts and minds - make it absolutely clear that you can and will, if it comes down to it, walk away. If you don’t do that you are going to get nothing out of any coalition negotiations.
“With what I hope will be an absence of the financial crisis of 2010, the absolute burning necessity to have a majority government in 2015 will be a little less than it was in 2010.
“A minority administration - which is not my preference - is not the horror story that it would have been four and a half years ago.”
Mr Farron declined to name the “red line” issues on which negotiators should refuse to budge.
But asked if opposition to an in/out referendum on EU membership should be a red line, he said: “It’s important that we don’t give away a referendum lightly, if at all.”
It might be easier for pro-Europeans to win a referendum under a Tory-led administration than one led by Labour, as Conservatives in opposition would give free rein to their Eurosceptic instincts, he suggested.