That adage has been much in my mind in the last 24 hours. For decades the LibDems (and the Liberals and SDP before them) have dreamed about being the king-makers who could force the two big parties to accept proportional representation.
Now Nick Clegg is a king-maker; well, sort of. I’ve been reading today’s newspapers, and they’re stuffed with contradictory advice and analysis. The Beast (i.e. the British electorate) has inadvertently given itself a taste of what Cabinetformatie (as the Dutch call it) would be like in a fairer voting system.
It looks as though all of Clegg’s options are unpalatable. So the only thing to do is to try and work out some general principles. If I were advising the LibDems, this is what I would say:
What matters is the long-term renewal of our political system. PR is only a part of that. A more important part is the renewal of the political parties.
A formal alliance, coalition or power-sharing with either Cameron or Brown is a non-starter. Either would destroy the LibDems.
There will be another election soon. The party that forms the government will be savagely punished by the electorate for the cuts it will have imposed to placate the markets. So a priority for Clegg should be to distance his party as much as possible from active responsibility for the cuts.
The temptation to support Labour under Brown should be resisted, despite the argument that the Labour+LibDem combination got more than 50% of the national vote and the deathbed conversion of Labour to PR. Apart from anything else, the Parliamentary arithmetic would leave a Labour-LibDem pact short of an overall majority. It would be a one-way ticket to oblivion for the LibDems. And probably couldn’t even be sure of delivering a referendum on PR
Cameron should be told that a minority government led by him will get LibDem support on an issue-by-issue basis. In other words, he should be given enough rope to hang himself. And while he is doing so the Tories will tear themselves apart as the pressures of governing bring their visceral ideological fissures to the surface.
In the end, two Tory mini-parties will emerge from the fracas: a deeply reactionary, xenophobic faction, akin to the current US Republican party, supported by an hysterical (but declining) cohort of print newspapers; and a relatively liberal, progressive party of the kind Cameron fantasises about. The former will decline into noisy marginality; hopefully, the latter will mature into a sensible and formidable centre-right party.
Meanwhile, the shock of defeat will eventually lead to the removal of Gordon Brown and may trigger a renewal of the Labour party into a more liberal, less-authoritarian, reform-minded, progressive political force. (Note, I say “may”.)
Er, that’s it. My consulting rates for political advice are quite reasonable, btw.