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To govern is to choose: it’s a lesson the Lib Dems are learning the hard way

Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government,’ David Steel told the Liberal Assembly in 1981. Twenty-nine years, six leaders and a merger with the Social Democrats later, the party is at last in government, but not in the way it had hoped.

The Liberal Democrats have historically prescribed higher spending as the cure for most government problems. Yet today, in coalition with the Conservatives, they are proposing the largest public spending cuts since the 1920s (the last Lib-Con government).

So far, the Liberal Democrats have held it together. Not a single parliamentarian has defected. Only a few councillors have quit. But the same cannot be said for the party’s supporters. The army of new Lib Dem supporters, who appeared from nowhere in the aftermath of the ‘I agree with Nick’ election campaign debates, have vanished — along with many of the party’s previous supporters.

At the peak of Clegg’s popularity, the party polled at 34 per cent. On election day, it secured 23 per cent of the vote. Today, its support is 12 per cent. The question facing the Lib Dems this week, as they head to Liverpool for their party conference, is just how far down the coalition will drag them.

In this climate, a Lib Dem split seems highly likely. This is, after all, a party that was forged since Alex Ferguson became manager of Manchester United. The Lib Dems have a much smaller core vote than the other two parties — and far fewer safe seats. Unlike Labour or the Conservatives, they could be reduced to a single figure number of MPs in just one election.

Clegg confidants admit that almost anything could happen to the Liberal Democrats now. They could split, with the rump being absorbed by the Conservatives — as happened last time they were in coalition. They could be wiped out at the next election. Or they could become the new holders of the balance of power in British politics, as coalitions become the norm.

Optimistic Liberal Democrats think that history is on their side — and that Britain is ceasing to be a two-party country. Since the war, Labour and the Tories have seen their combined share of the vote fall from 92 per cent to 67 per cent. It is far from a fantasy to say that hung parliaments may now become a permanent fea-


ture in our political landscape, even without the change to the voting system which the Liberal Democrats want to secure in next year’s referendum.They can expect to be in government regularly.

The most enthusiastic Liberal Democrats will tell you that the busting of British politics’ duopoly is also leading to a less tribal politics. As ancient allegiances break down, voters are more likely to shop around—to the benefit of the third party.

All this would be fine, if the Lib Dems’ poll rating were not in freefall. The loss of 40 per cent of the party’s support since the election gives weight to another theory: that, by going into government with the Conservatives, Nick Clegg has alienated two of the party’s key voter groups, left-wing social democrats and anti-politics voters. One Lib Dem secretary of state recently predicted that, after the cuts start to bite, Lib Dem support would fall to a new low of about 5 per cent.

But both the optimists and the pessimists are ignoring the biggest challenge facing the Liberal Democrats: they have to decide who they are. As the second opposition party, the party could ignore its own ideological division: the split between the liberals, like Nick Clegg, and the social democrats, like Simon Hughes. In office, this becomes much harder. The party has to decide which direction it wants to try and push the coalition in. To govern is to choose.

Moreover, the party’s ideological dif-

ferences are now complicated by another factor. Most of the Liberal Democrats who have government jobs are on the liberal wing of the party, while the backbenchers and the activist base tend to be social democrats. It is the party’s perennial problem: the classically liberal instincts of MPs such as David Laws and, indeed, Nick Clegg himself are unreflective of a membership that was at its most comfortable when attacking New Labour from the left.

To some, this makes a split almost inevitable. Westminster insiders say that a sizable number of Liberal Democrats will walk out next May if the referendum on the alternative vote is defeated and the party has fallen into single figures in the polls. I understand that one Lib Dem MP—not Charles Kennedy—has already spoken to Labour figures about switching parties. If, next May, the AV referendum is defeated and the Lib Dems suffer major losses in the local and Scottish elections, he might be tipped over the edge.

The Cameroons can’t say it in public — and are reluctant to admit it even in private — but a Lib Dem split would suit them rather well. If left-leaning Liberal Democrats go off to either Labour or the political wilderness, it would be easier for the Tories to do business with those who remain. Many backbench Tories are confident that they could gobble up the liberals who stick around. Thus the natural, two-party order could be restored.

Those Lib Dems who regard Labour as their natural partners see hope of a rapprochement in Scotland, where next year’s elections could well make a Lib-Lab governing coalition a possibility. But some in Scottish Labour would rather run the risk of minority government than deal with the Tories’ partners in cuts.

The Liberal Democrats may have to grow accustomed to getting the left’s cold shoulder. Ed Miliband has already made it clear that he would not work with Nick Clegg after the next election. And as the full pain of the cuts is felt, anti-Lib Dem sentiment on the Labour side is bound to harden. By the next election, the Lib Dems may find that only one party will co-operate with them: their current coalition partners, the Conservatives.

‘My husband enjoys his own company — after all it grossed £30 million last year.’

SPECTATOR.CO.UK/COFFEEHOUSE For the latest in news from Westminster the spectator | 18 September 2010 |

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