Yet again John Rentoul is wrong.
In today's Independent John Rentoul describes an electoral scenario that he describes as "shocking", "alarming" and "one of the least attractive" electoral outcomes. While I agree with these statements (for purely polemic reasons, they suggest yet another coalition), I disagree with his naive arguments. Rentoul says that the situation will lead to "the Liberal Democrats might have even more of an influence on government than they have at the moment". I disagree, the result will be a short-lived and unstable government.
Let's look at the 2010 election results. These figures have changed a little bit since 2010, but not so much as to make any difference, I will use them because they describe the situation in 2010, rather than now.
Assuming that the five Sinn Féin MPs (included in Others) do not participate this means a majority coalition requires 323 MPs. For the Tories to get a majority of 323 out of these figures they needed 17 more votes.
The Coalition works because the Lib Dems provide 57 extra votes, right? Not necessarily. Over the last four years Lib Dems have voted against government bills, so the Coalition cannot rely on all of those 57 Lib Dem MPs (nor all the Tory MPs, but that is another story...). What if the Tory-majority government brings in a bill that goes against everything that the Lib Dems stand for, will the Coalition still have those 57 votes? No, but even so, the government (assuming it has the votes of all Tory MPs) will still have a majority. The reason is the "payroll vote".
The payroll vote are those MPs who hold government posts. These vary between paid ministerial positions to unpaid posts like chairing important parliamentary committees. If we just restrict ourselves to the paid positions, here are the figures from 2010:
Cabinet members (23); 18 Tory; 5 Lib Dem
6 Tories ministers also attend
Minister of State (32); 26 Tory; 6 Lib Dem
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (33); 28 Tory; 5 Lib Dem
Whips (non-cabinet 5); 3 Tory; 2 Lib Dem
All of these people will always vote for the government. This is a guaranteed 93 votes for any government bill (88 ministers and 5 whips). Eighteen of these people are Lib Dem. So if the Coalition brings in a Bill that will turn the stomach every Lib Dem the vote will pass because eighteen Lib Dems are on the payroll and will always vote for the government.
Why are eighteen of the 88 ministers Lib Dems? This is because the Lib Dems have 16% of the Coalition MPs (57 out of 363) and hence have to have at least 16% of the ministerial positions. 16% of 88 is fifteen, rounding up judiciously. Since there are sixteen Lib Dem ministers it means Lib Dems are over represented in government, but this is advantageous because it guarantees the Coalition a majority. (Fifteen plus the five whips still gives a figure above that magical seventeen majority, but only just, hence the need to have an additional three guaranteed Lib Dem votes.)
Now onto why John Rentoul is wrong. He quotes a "prediction" that at the next election the breakdown will be:
Rentoul says that this will make the Lib Dems much more powerful than they are now. It won't, all it will do is create an unstable government and make a new election much more likely.
To get a 323 majority one or the other of the two large parties would have to find 27 or 28 votes. They cannot get these from the Lib Dems because they cannot guarantee that all Lib Dems will vote for the resulting coalition. Let's assume that Labour form the next coalition. This will mean that 9% of the coalition's 327 MPs will be Lib Dem hence 9% of the payroll vote, or eight MPs. Add this to the whips votes and the Labour-led coalition will have 309 votes, well short of the 323 needed. Essentially, this will be a minority government, not much different to what we would have now if the Lib Dems pulled out of the Coalition. It would be unstable.
So Rentoul is wrong to say that "the Liberal Democrats might have even more of an influence on government than they have at the moment" since that government will be short-lived and probably will achieve nothing for the Lib Dems to influence.