I hope it's not too disloyal of me to say that I don't expect a Lib Dem triumph in tomorrow's Barnsley Central by-election. Despite the circumstances that triggered the election, I suspect the Labour candidate will win comfortably, indeed well.
But what would have happened if the Lib Dems had followed the advice of bien pensant Guardianistas and so forth, by opting for coalition with Labour?
The government would still have been planning cuts 'deeper and tougher' than under Margaret Thatcher [copyright A. Darling]. It would also have been planning or have already implemented significant tax rises, perhaps including the VAT increase that Labour has so strongly opposed. Led by the party that had been in power for 13 years it could hardly have evaded responsibility for the economic situation. It would have either been led by Gordon Brown whose mandate the electorate had declined to renew or by a new Labour leader who had not even been a candidate for prime minister at the general election. It would also have been widely regarded as illegitimate, a coalition of the losers to keep out the largest and most popular party. All in all there is every reason to suppose the government would be deeply unpopular and that the Conservatives would enjoy a significant opinion poll lead by now.
The coalition would lack an overall majority and have started with only a nine-seat advantage over the Conservatives. Which brings us to the by-elections. Perhaps Elwyn Watkins would have been strong-armed into dropping his legal case in Oldham East and Saddleworth, leading to much bad blood between the coalition partners. But had he persisted, there is every reason to suppose the constituency would now have a Conservative MP. The Tory candidate was in a respectable third place at the general election and would have been the only credible recipient of anti-government votes, including those of Lib Dems who felt betrayed by Clegg keeping Labour in power.
And so to Barnsley Central. It might seem far-fetched to imagine the constituency electing a Conservative MP. But a swing on the scale of previous Tory by-election successes at Crewe and Nantwich or Norwich North would have been enough. If the idea of Barnsley having a Tory MP had seemed just too implausible the Conservatives could have 'done a Tatton' on Labour in the light of Eric Illsley's conviction for expenses fraud and run a Martin Bell-style anti-sleaze candidate.
With the whip withdrawn from Dennis McShane, the coalition's advantage over the Conservatives alone would have been down to four or five seats, putting it further in hoc to SNP, Plaid and Northern Irish MPs. After less than a year in power, the government would have the smell of death about it. Dissident Labour MPs might already have blocked or sabotaged an AV referendum. The Lib Dems would have had to compromise on tuition fees and be incurring opprobrium for unpopular cuts and tax rises. The Conservatives would be optimistic about sooner or later defeating the government on a confidence vote and of a big majority at the ensuing general election, gaining large numbers of Lib Dem seats in the process. The coalition would leave power with few if any achievements to its name.
Given the result of the general election a Lib-Lab coalition was never a serious prospect even had there been much greater goodwill between the parties. It is simply a useful chimera for those on the left who want to damn the Lib Dems' supposed betrayal. But it is salutary to ponder how things would have panned out in practice.