Sir Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader, on Sunday left open the door to a post-election coalition with the Labour party, after last week’s local council results suggested Britain could be heading for a hung parliament.
Davey also hinted at the possible price for a deal with Labour, saying that changing Britain’s voting system to a more proportional model was “very important to the Liberal Democrats”.
Although Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, claims he is on course to secure an outright House of Commons majority in the expected 2024 general election, last week’s polls confirmed that that remains a tall order.
Starmer has explicitly ruled out a coalition with the Scottish National party, but he has been more circumspect about closing the door on a deal with Davey, who shares his objective of wanting to oust Prime Minister Rishi Sunak from Downing Street.
Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary, tried to close down discussion of a potential Lib-Lab pact on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuennsberg, saying: “We are not in that ballpark of talking about coalitions.”
Davey is also reluctant to start discussing potential deals, knowing that it plays into a likely Conservative narrative that the country could be heading for a “coalition of chaos” in a hung parliament.
But he told the same programme there was no way he would repeat the Lib Dems’ 2010-15 coalition with the Tories — a pact that cost the party dear in political support — adding: “Our focus is getting rid of Conservative MPs.”
Asked about a possible deal with Labour, he said: “That’s a hypothetical question. We don’t know what will happen after the next election. We are not going to take voters for granted.”
While Labour made big gains in last week’s polls in England, the results implied Starmer would struggle to win an overall Commons majority; Labour needs to gain about 120 seats to even have a majority of one.
Sir John Curtice, an elections expert at Strathclyde university, extrapolated from the local results a projected UK national vote share of 35 points for Labour, 26 for the Tories, and 20 for the Lib Dems. The Greens also polled well.
Curtice said that while this was Labour’s biggest local election lead over the Tories since the party lost power in 2010, its tally was “no better than its score in last year’s local elections”.
However, the success of Davey’s party in winning council seats in the Tory “blue wall” in the south of England raises the prospect of the Lib Dems playing a key role in the outcome of the next election.
The Conservatives have no natural coalition allies in a hung parliament, so Sunak faces an uphill struggle to hold on to power. If there is widespread tactical voting by anti-Tory voters his problems could get worse.
Labour and the Lib Dems share many objectives in areas such as the environment, boosting public services and repairing some of the damage caused by Brexit, but Davey’s demand for electoral reform could be key.
Many Lib Dems see a change to a proportional voting system as crucial to reshaping politics — and massively boosting the party’s representation at Westminster.
Streeting said he did not expect PR to be part of the next Labour election manifesto, but many party activists support electoral reform — the party conference voted for it last year — and it could be the price the Lib Dems demand for backing Starmer.
Lucy Frazer, culture secretary, recognised the Conservatives needed “to do more” after losing about 1,000 council seats last week, but said Sunak would redouble his efforts to deliver on his promises concerning the economy, the NHS and migration in small boats.
The local elections have sharpened the focus on the problems facing Sunak in developing a manifesto at the next election that can hold together the 2019 Tory electoral coalition put together by former prime minister Boris Johnson.
While northern Tory MPs want to build more homes, some MPs in the south — including former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers — want Sunak to open a “new front on Labour” by claiming Starmer would build inappropriately on green land.
A separate row has broken out on taxation, with those on the Tory right urging Sunak to radically cut taxes, while Tory MPs defending seats in the “red wall” want more investment in their areas.
However, the idea of ditching Sunak is only entertained by a small fringe of the party — described by one Tory minister as “a few hardline Boris and Liz nutjobs”. The minister added: “Anyone serious about our getting elected knows Rishi is quietly repairing a lot of damage.”