It’s decision time for the Lib Dem leader

WHO will he pick? That’s the question on everyone’s lips. With just ten days to go, all the opinion polls suggest Britain is heading for its first hung parliament since 1974; it looks like Nick Clegg is going to have to make a choice.

The Liberal Democrat leader was giving nothing away on Andrew Marr’s TV show yesterday, sporting a navy blue suit and a bright red tie. Although he appeared to rule out propping up the unpopular Gordon Brown, he left himself more than enough wriggle room to change his mind.

An average of yesterday’s opinion polls puts the Tories on 35 per cent, the Lib Dems on 28 per cent and Labour on 27 per cent. That would result in a hung parliament with the Tories as the biggest party, 43 seats short of an overall majority.

For Clegg, this could be the best outcome. Although most party activists would prefer to go into coalition with Labour, it would be hard to do so if Brown had suffered such a staggering, humiliating defeat. With the Tories a clear winner, in terms of seats and share of votes, Clegg would have little choice but to start horse-trading with David Cameron.

Teaming up with the Tories is not without its risks, however. Most Lib Dem supporters veer to the left ideologically and will struggle to keep faith when their party helps wield the axe on public services. Clegg could take the Liberals to their biggest victory in a generation, only to lose it all at the next election.

If the Tories win the popular vote but Labour gets the most seats, a distinct possibility under the first-past-the-post system, Clegg’s decision will be all the harder.

Privately, Labour speaks of a swift change of leader after the election, suggesting that the Lib Dems would be more likely to play ball if David Miliband or Alan Johnson were in charge. Coupled with the promise of electoral reform, Clegg could find it tough to resist such a deal, but voters would surely be furious at the second Prime Ministerial coronation in a row.

Privately, the Tories have started to countenance the possibility that they might have to govern in a coalition or via a voting pact. With less than a fortnight until the polls, it seems unlikely that Cameron will open up the commanding lead he once held. Yesterday, he softened his stance on electoral reform, refusing to rule out the possibility of discussing it in coalition talks with the Lib Dems. Tory activists think this will pave the way for decades of Lib-Lab rule, and previously Cameron has said his support of the first-past-the-post system was unstinting.

This week the Tories will continue to highlight the difficulties of governing in coalition when the public finances are in such a parlous state. But if the polls are anything to go by, their entreaties could fall on deaf ears: voters consistently say they want a hung parliament. The consequences could be disastrous, but people get the government they deserve.