So who should Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems do a deal with? And what should they seek to get in return?
Clearly their first priority must be electoral reform. This is clearly their best opportunity yet to secure a set of reforms that could completely change the dynamic of British politics. Unfortunately, there are a number of major obstacles standing in the way that could prevent them from achieving this.
The first problem is this. On issues of policy (tax, electoral reform, Europe, the economy) the Lib Dems are much closer to Labour than the Tories, and so are most Lib Dem activists. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for most Lib Dem voters, particularly those in many of the seats in the South of England where the Lib Dems are the main opposition to the Tories. So while most Lib Dem party members and MPs would be much happier forming a coalition with the outgoing Labour government, they could face a backlash from some of their voters and the Tory press if they did. David Cameron may not have won the election last Thursday, but there is no doubt that Gordon Brown lost it. Therefore Nick Clegg would be committing electoral suicide if he was seen to be supporting a Prime Minister who had been rejected by the voters.
The alternative Lib Dem-Labour scenario is that a coalition between the two parties could be agreed, but with Gordon Brown stepping down as PM. But would Gordon Brown ever agree to that? I suspect not, but even if I'm wrong, who would replace him? No-one from within the Labour Party has the mandate, and a new leadership election would take too long. So how about if Nick Clegg were to be the new PM? That might be more popular with the electorate, but then the problem switches to the question of who would be his Chancellor of the Exchequer. The public would also want Vince Cable, but it is inconceivable that any coalition between the Lib Dems and Labour could be agreed with the Lib Dems holding both of the two top posts in Cabinet when they are by far the smaller party. And the alternative is that Gordon Brown might demand his old job back.
Finally there is the problem of stability. A Lib Dem-Labour coalition would still fail to command a majority in the House of Commons. It would need the additional support of the SDLP, the Greens, and either Plaid Cymru or the SNP or both in order to govern. Yet the greater the number of partners, the greater the risk of collapse. The question the Lib Dems should therefore be asking themselves is this. How long would such a coalition need to exist in order for it to deliver electoral reform in time for the next election? And how likely is it that it would happen? The doomsday scenario is that this coalition would collapse before any real reform could be enacted, and that at the ensuing general election the Tories went on to win decisively, with the Lib Dems routed. Electoral reform could then be off the political agenda for another generation.
So if a Lib Dem Labour coalition is fraught with difficulty and danger, how about a pact with the Tories? At first sight it is hard to see, though, how a pact between the Tories and the Lib Dems (whether in the form of a formal coalition or an informal one) could work given the massive differences in policy between the two parties and the mutual hostility of many of their respective MPs. Moreover, the Tories would never agree to electoral reform of the House of Commons. However there is one thing that the Tories could deliver that would be a total game changer - reform of the House of Lords.
David Cameron and the Tory Party claim to support a fully elected upper chamber, so now Nick Clegg needs to call their bluff. The outgoing Labour government has claimed that it was opposition from the existing Tory life peers and hereditary peers that blocked and delayed reform of the House of Lords in the final years of Gordon Brown's premiership. David Cameron on the other hand can deliver the necessary votes in the House of Lords needed to get reform through quickly. That should therefore be the price that Nick Clegg should demand for limited support of a minority Conservative government in the House of Commons. The critical factor here is speed. If reform of the House of Lords is not in place before the next general election, not just in legislation but in operation as well, it can always be repealed by a new (Tory) government in the House of Commons that may seek to break any promises and cancel any deals agreed previously. There is little honour in politics, particularly if it gets in the way of the exercising of unbridled power. However, once an elected House of Lords is up and running though, no House of Commons will be able to abolish it unilaterally. It would need a broad consent in The new House of Lords as well, and turkeys don't usually vote for Christmas. In short, once it is up and running, a directly elected House of Lords is here to stay. It is irreversible.
Now at first sight this might all seem like a small and insufficient concession for the Lib Dems to extract from the Tories given that most people see the House of Lords purely as a revising chamber. I believe, though, that reform of the House of Lords is the real key to total electoral reform in this country. It represents the small crack in the dam that will eventually bring down the whole structure. As the new House of Lords would be elected by PR, it would be more proportional, more democratic, and therefore more legitimate than the House of Commons. It could act as a block on extreme policies promoted by governments with Commons majorities but minority support from the electorate. In effect it would lead to coalition governments without the need to reform the voting procedure for the House of Commons, though that would surely follow. In short, it would totally change the rules of the game. That is why Clegg must seize the opportunity now. He may never get another chance.