Will Clegg stick or twist?

All eyes are on Nick Clegg this morning as he meets his front bench team to discuss whether or not to do a deal with the Tories. Addressing the media in the past half hour, he spoke only of “the coming hours and days”, reiterating that political reform remains “fundamental” to the party’s objectives. In another recent development, the BBC reports that the Queen will remain at Windsor Castle today, indicating it will be tomorrow or Monday at the earliest that any deal is confirmed.

The day’s papers are full of speculation about which way Clegg will jump, and to whose tune. The Independent describes Clegg’s dilemma as “One man’s moment. His party’s destiny. Our nation’s future” – with Steve Richards warning that “there is a danger he will let it pass – an error that is entirely in line with his party’s tentative approach to the pragmatic demands of power”:

“Clegg declared in advance of the election that the party that secured most votes and seats should have the first chance to attempt to form a government. He was obliged to repeat his declaration yesterday.

“Some Liberal Democrats seem convinced that they will get credit at the next election by allowing the Conservatives to rule. They are deluding themselves. They risk being swallowed alive.

In The Guardian, Polly Toynbee says Clegg “must hold his nerve”, with the Lib Dems “in a position to demand crucial voting reform”, that “a once unthinkable progressive coalition is on the table”:

“For the first time the prize is within grasp. The people have spoken – and none of the above won. Radical reform to an electoral system that has fallen apart is at last on offer. The deadly duopoly between two moribund parties has broken. But will it be cobbled together again as if nothing had happened?

“All depends on the nerve of Nick Clegg. Has he the spine and the iron resolve to stick to the one condition that offers a chance of a progressive future? As he cuts through the thickets of negotiations, his sword has been bent by seats lost, not won. He is weakened by that grand surge that fell back to earth like a dead flare…

“People minded to vote Lib Dem understood the wicked ways of first past the post, and voted tactically – avoiding a wasted vote where Lib Dems could never win. What else could they do? This is his once-in-a-generation chance to bring in the better politics that is the only point of his party.”

The Telegraph, meanwhile, asks “what price” David Cameron will pay “for the keys” to 10 Downing Street, Ben Brogan saying the Tory leader “risks party wrath” over any deal with the Liberal Democrats:

“He failed to secure one with the electorate, so now he’s trying his luck with Nick Clegg, and could split his party in the process. David Cameron, Prime Minister apparent in a world where appearances are deceiving, wants to seal a deal with the Liberal Democrat leader by Monday.

“He must produce an agreement that gets him safely inside No 10 before furious Conservatives turn on him… rattled by signs of incipient revolt, he is telephoning backers to shore up support after dropping a political bombshell that could break the truce between him and the Tory right.

“Conservatives this weekend must grapple with a question that in the recent past led to a civil war and more than a decade of opposition: power, but at what price?”

And in The Times, Peter Riddell sketches out the unenviable role facing the prime minister over the next few days, saying his “first duty is to mind the shop until the shutters come down”:

“Constitutional history is being made this weekend. The party leaders are working within guidelines published two months ago by the Cabinet Office to provide clarity and reassurance for just this situation. The aim is to ensure electoral stalemate can be resolved in an orderly manner.

“The key principle is that the incumbent Prime Minister remains in office until he concludes that he has no prospect of commanding the confidence of the Commons or loses a vote at the end of the Queen’s Speech debate. A Prime Minister’s duty is to stay in office until it becomes clear which party or combination of parties can command most support.

Meanwhile, government must carry on: there cannot be a gap. Ministers back from the campaign are constrained by an extension of the election purdah rules, meant to ensure that they do not take decisions (for instance, on appointments) that can be deferred and that might bind their successors. They can handle emergencies such as financial market turbulence.

Mr Brown is, in effect, a caretaker. It is consistent with this constitutional position that talks are held between all the main parties, not just with him as head of the governing party. All options have to be tested.

“To aid this process, Mr Brown has agreed that civil servants provide support to the parties involved in the talks. Teams of four officials are helping the Tories and the Lib Dems. Other officials have been put on standby to help other parties. But they are not negotiators.”

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