The recent Twitter-flirtation between Nick Clegg and Ed Balls was in itself not hugely significant, even if it was a welcome burst of public banter taking the place of off-the-record briefings.
Politicians, after all, manage to be polite to each other far more often than Prime Minister’s Questions might suggest, and the ability to behave (occasionally) like a well-mannered, polite adult is part of what makes them politicians who get insulted in the comments on blogs rather than commenters who insult politicians in the comments on blogs.
However it is symptomatic also of a lessons slowly growing on both parties about the problems that followed Gordon Brown’s decision to stand down as Labour Party leader shortly after the last general election. In many ways, it was the obvious move. What else should an unpopular Prime Minister, heavily defeated in the polls, do?
Yet although it was also a last desperate attempt to see if a Labour-Lib Dem deal could be worked out, it was in fact the death of any such super-slim chances. The Parliamentary arithmetic was already heavily against it, and it would have required a hyper-disciplined Labour Party to completely and loyally line up behind a deal for a deal to have any prospect of working. Yet without a leader, who was there to make such discipline happen?
Leaderless parties can’t make the sort of controversial decisions that a hung Parliament deal requires. And the time it take for party democracy to operate means a leaderless party cannot quickly become a led party unless it is a party so short of talent there is only one plausible leader, ready to be shooed in to place immediately.
In the circumstances of May 2010, whatever Gordon Brown did it would not have worked out well. But there’s a lesson there for 2015, when the circumstances may well make the lesson meaningful rather than academic.
If any party wants to make a deal with another but also insists on the leader of that other party going, they’ll have ended up defeating themselves – because without the other party having a leader, there won’t be a deal.
If you really want to oust another party’s leader, win an overall majority and then let the other party stew and do the deed do itself. But if it’s a hung Parliament, don’t try to oust another leader; deal with them.