- What team implements roughly a similar set of policies overall;
- Whether the economy or electoral reform becomes the priority.
So what are the pressures on the main parties? The tensions are between getting power, and alienating future voters or alienating their own grassroots of voters and members. All of the parties face very different pressures that limit their range of options, as follows...
As the party with the plurality of seats and votes, it has rightfully claimed the greater right to lead a government. Cameron has also appropriately set down some bottom lines, such as defence, Europe and immigration. It is highly unlikely that the Liberal Democrats would push any of these. There are areas of potential agreement, like lowering taxes on the low paid, abolishing ID cards and (unfortunately) the embrace of environmentalism. However, there is a difference of priorities. Cameron has made it very clear the priority must be the economy, in particular addressing the fiscal crisis of the budget deficit. In doing so he comes across as being statesmanlike, focusing on the issue that does have a significant number of his own supporters worried, and the public in general.
The contrast is with political reform, a wider term than "electoral reform" as discussed by the Liberal Democrats. Cameron has proposed a cross party inquiry. He knows this wont be enough for the Liberal Democrats, but he also knows it will appeal to Labour and to many in the general public. To his own party it looks like a good opportunity to dodge proportional representation, but it does give room to talk about a wider range of ideas than electoral reform.
For example, balancing the size of constituencies, reducing the number of MPs, reforming the local electoral system, electing the House of Lords. On electoral reform, several options can be considered, including Labour's preferential voting proposal. Cameron can present any of these for discussion, and can even consider a referendum for some of them. However, he also knows he can't offer a referendum on proportional representation without a major internal rebellion.
By prioritising the economy, Cameron is trying to portray any LibDem claim that electoral reform should be a priority as being the LibDems being self interested from a political perspective. As a result, if the reason the LibDems reject a coalition with Cameron, he can claim he was putting the national interest ahead of politics, but that the LibDems are less interested in governing, but more interested in politics. Cameron also knows that Nick Clegg is in a weaker position than he appears to be. The LibDems only increased their share of the vote by 1%, and lost seats. Clegg is not as popular as many thought, and personally must deliver to his party or he faces a serious challenge. However, Cameron also knows he offers some things to Clegg that Brown cannot:
1. Clegg campaigned on change, yet supporting Gordon Brown to remain PM will be contrary to this. He also doesn't have enough support to demand a new Labour leader;
2. Labour plus LibDems does not create a parliamentary majority. So the SNP and Plaid Cymru may be needed, adding to the complication, the compromise and the sense of it being a coalition of the losers.
However, if a coalition doesn't happen, because the LibDems wont get enough, a minority government could yet be formed. Yet, the LibDems would still want to extract a price for that, and that would have to include electoral reform.
As long as Cameron makes the economy a priority, he can state that he will lead a minority government only if a budget can be agreed that starts to cut the deficit. Other parties that interfere with that will only accelerate another election, an election none of them will want, given it is likely to only benefit the two major parties - as parties that can lead a government.
So Cameron knows he can either negotiate what he wants, or sit back, say that he wont compromise to fit minority special interests, and either sit in Opposition watching Labour have to confront the deficit, or wait for an election.
Cameron should not fear another election, as he can state that it would not be because of him. It would be because minor parties sought to gain more influence than he was prepared to submit to, and because Labour could not lead a stable government. Yet it would be a gamble he could play only once, for if the next election also fails to produce a majority, the pressure for electoral reform would multiply. Under the circumstances, the gamble is probably worth the risk.
Labour has lost, but nothing like as bad as had been anticipated. The strongest cards it can play are incumbency and the broader leftwing affiliation of most of the parties in the House of Commons. Incumbency has already been played though, and has been played too strong. It looks like a defeated Prime Minister believes he is entitled to stay in power. Labour will be aware of this, but also knows the other card is far more important.
The Liberal Democrats used to be a blend of those who believed in small government, with those who thought the Labour Party had gone too far to the left. The small government Liberal Democrats could work with the Conservatives, but they have been overwhelmed by those who came from the SDP, ex. Labour members who had fled a party with a Marxist manifesto. Now, they are to the left of Labour, and so would be less than impressed if Clegg went with the Conservatives, particularly if there is no solid guarantee to hold a referendum on proportional representation. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition would see many LibDem voters swinging to Labour at the next election.
So Labour does have a strong card to play. It knows that maybe a majority of LibDem voters would prefer Labour over the Conservatives. The seats the LibDems lost went to the Conservatives, indicating that the bulk of the remaining LibDem vote are Labour supporters who either voted strategically or were choosing a "safe" alternative to punish Labour. That does not mean they would want a Conservative led government.
However, Labour also knows its weaknesses. The obvious one is that Labour + the Lib Dems does not make a majority. Yet that may not be a major problem. Both the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru are highly unlikely to support the Conservatives, and both are even more unlikely to want another election, so they have little alternative but to grant confidence and supply to a Labour-Lib Dem government, even if it means offering referenda on independence for their nations. Referenda that Labour knows would be lost by the nationalists.
On policies, there aren't any serious difficulties, given that the differences between the parties are not intractable. Labour can concede more than the Conservatives. Most importantly, Gordon Brown has already offered a better deal on electoral reform. Such a deal would include legislation to ensure the next election was under a different system. One compromise that the LibDems might accept is for an elected House of Lords with a form of proportional representation. In short, Labour can offer more on electoral reform than the Conservatives, and this is critical for the Lib Dems.
Yet there does remain a weakness. Gordon Brown. Nick Clegg will be aware that Brown is unpopular, and that one clear verdict of the electorate is that a vast majority of voters do not want a government led by Gordon Brown. However, the Labour Party is too battered by the loss of the election to engage in the coup needed to remove Brown and select a new leader.
Still, if Clegg picks Cameron Labour should not be too upset, for it offers Labour one and potentially two major political gifts.
Firstly, a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition will upset many Lib Dem members and voters, and potentially one or two MPs. This will be particularly if it is achieved without a solid commitment to electoral reform. Labour can sit back and watch that support look for a home. Given the reasonable chance such a coalition would not last a full term, it gives Labour a platform to build upon. Labour can simply say a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for a Conservative led government.
Secondly, if such a coalition embarks on a serious austerity drive, Labour can oppose and seek the votes of the disgruntled.
So, Labour knows the Lib Dems wont want another election that soon, and also that there will be pressure to not support the Conservatives. If the Lib Dems support the Conservatives, then with the exception of Gordon Brown (who will almost certainly face a leadership coup), Labour wont be shedding too many tears, especially if that government faces the political price of reducing the budget deficit.
It's fairly simple. The LibDems have lost seats, and gained only a tiny increase in the proportion of the vote. However, as a party it knows that while it can pick the government, it isn't in a strong position to bargain having lost seats. The only thing that unites the party is a commitment to electoral reform, and it must get the best deal for such reform, otherwise the chance the election has offered will have been wasted. As much as Clegg will want to talk of stable government and the national interest, he knows his party is split between those preferring Labour and those preferring the Conservatives, with the former in a clear majority. What matters the most is ensuring that this position of power delivers the party enough of a chance for electoral reform that it can at least get a referendum it can back to deliver a form of proportional representation. So that deal will be what matters.
Beyond that, Clegg personally would prefer Cameron over Brown. However, a deal with Cameron will upset many in the LibDems, so if it is to happen it better last, be stable, delay an election as long as possible. So he will want it to work, to be able to show policy gains, and then deliver electoral reform.
The same applies to Labour, although he knows that would be more comfortable with the party rank and file. So any such deal would need to be stable, and last.
Why? Because the last thing he wants is another election, an election when many LibDem voters would scurry back to the main parties.
So while he can choose between two suitors, he knows neither suitor will be too concerned if it does not last, because he will be the scapegoat, and another election will not scare them (although Gordon Brown almost certainly would not be permitted by his party to seek another term), but for Nick Clegg, he wont want another election.