I have agonised about publishing this post but in the end I have to be honest about what I think is politically possible.
First of all I think that our negotiating team has done a great job. The fact that the Conservative Party is now offering a guaranteed, whipped vote in the Commons on the Alternative Vote system is testament to how well they have done. The Tories are so wedded to FPTP that that has to be viewed as a real concession.
However let me also be very clear that AV is not what I ultimately want. It can actually be less proportional than FPTP. I went through some contortions on this subject last year which revolved around pragmatism of accepting AV as a "first step" towards the much more proportional STV (it gets people used to preference voting, removes the need for tactical voting and would probably give the Lib Dems 50% more seats than under FPTP). At the time I concluded that we should do everything we can to try and get STV. Indeed in a blog post I wrote on Friday I stated that PR is a red line for me in the negotiations. But in the last few days I have watched how the discussions have gone and have talked to numerous people from both Labour and the Conservatives and have concluded that with the electoral arithmetic as it stands at the moment, we cannot get PR.
Every single Conservative I have spoken to (and there have been a fair few) off the record has assured me that a referendum on AV is their absolute bottom line. I do not think this is a negotiating tactic, I think it is a statement of fact. No matter how much I disagree with them on this that is the position.
So the alternative that we are looking at is some sort of minority Labour/Lib Dem government perhaps bolstered by the support of nationalist parties and the Green MP. Gordon Brown has promised instant legislation to bring in AV for the Commons and a referendum on something more proportional. There are numerous problems with this approach but the most fundamental one is that even with all the nationalists and parties that would support AV and a referendum would get us to about 330 votes with about 315 ranged against it from the Conservatives and their Northern Ireland partners. It would only take a few Labour MPs to vote against this for it to fall. And having conversed with some Labour backbench MPs I am convinced that there would be enough for this to happen. So what Brown is promising simply cannot be delivered. That is aside from all the other problems about being seen as "a coalition of the losers", propping up Brown for the next few months and how precariously balanced such a government would be constantly teetering on the edge etc. which are big enough in themselves. The "prize" at the end of it all would not even be there anyway.
(Also, as a brief aside I do not want AV, or any change to the electoral system imposed on the country in any situation. People did not vote for that and it should be put to a referendum).
The other option is to allow the Tories to form a minority government but then we would be unlikely to get any change to the electoral system. We would also have forfeited our chance to show what we are capable of in government. Frankly, if we are ever going to get PR we need to demonstrate how coalitions can work in practise. This is our chance to do that. If we forfeit this chance then we risk making the arguments against stronger by showing that we are not willing to step up to the plate and hence giving succour to opponents of reform.
So although it is very difficult for me given my feelings about electoral reform, I have concluded that the red line that I stated should be there on Friday is unachievable with the current parliamentary arithmetic. If we'd been able to get another dozen or more seats or if Labour had outsted Brown last year (as I kept telling them they should do) then things might be very different. But politics is the art of the possible and PR at the moment, sadly is not.
I am going to dismiss the idea of a "confidence and supply" arrangement (as I blogged about on Sunday, it is too risky and from what I can tell our negotiating team seems to agree) so that only leaves us with agreeing to a coalition with the Conservatives.
There are still lots of things that we could achieve in a coalition and things such as fixed term parliaments, a fully elected (and proportional) House of Lords appear to be potentially on the table as well as all sorts of other things that I expect a Conservative administration on its own would not implement. But with the Lib Dems, all of these things become possible. We should also make very, very clear that our acceptance of AV is for us just a first step and reiterate ad nauseum our ultimate commitment to a proportional system.
As I said at the start, it pains me to write what I have done above and I appreciate it may make me look a bit inconsistent and hypocritical but in all negotiations you aim high and ultimately get what you can. I think we have done that but now is the time to accept the limits of what can be achieved. I expect some Lib Dems will be annoyed with me but I have to call it as I see it.
Most important now is to conclude a deal. We are risking damaging our reputation if these negotiations go on too much longer. I have done numerous radio phone in programmes in the last few days and I am just starting to get the feeling that the public's patience is wearing a bit thin. Ordinarily I would be happy for us to take our time but with the global financial markets as precariously balanced as they are at the moment a decision needs to be taken. Preferably today. At the latest tomorrow.
In conclusion, the situation we find ourselves in is far from ideal but a coalition with the Tories is now realistically the best outcome for the party and the country.
We should take the Tory deal.