THE Liberal Democrats could face credibility crisis, but Nick Clegg could still be sitting in the catbird seat says Euan McColm
From the moment Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg agreed a deal to form a coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservatives, many in his party predicted devastating consequences.
How, they wondered, would the Lib Dems ever recover from a dalliance with the Tories? Who would ever trust this centre-left party after it cosied up to MPs from the right?
Those concerns proved well-founded in 2011, a year after Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister, when the party returned only five MSPs to the Scottish Parliament. It remains difficult, even when considering the remarkable momentum of the SNP’s campaign, to escape the conclusion that Scots punished the party for putting Cameron in Downing Street.
A call from Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott this week for his party to break its partnership with the Tories after next month’s European Parliament election reveals fears of further punishment to come.
Oakeshott, a close chum of business secretary Vince Cable, chose the day of his party’s campaign launch to suggest that the coalition should come to an end on Friday, May 23, the day after we elect our MEPs.
This was necessary, said the peer, because the party had to be able to put across its “distinctive message” about what the party has achieved in government and what it will achieve at Westminster, separate from the Tories, after the 2015 General Election.
Oakeshott’s proposal – with its echo of Cable’s suggestion a year ago that the coalition could end well in advance of the election – is understandable. If party members believe association with the Tories is toxic then, of course, they will find ending it to be an attractive option.
But, while we can see and understand the thought process behind the peer’s words, his suggestion is, at best, naive and could cause the Lib Dems even more damage than staying the course in coalition might.
Oakeshott’s logic appears to be that breaking the partnership with the Tories will somehow erase it from memory, that those lost over it will return as if it never happened. Having made their bed and lain in it, the Lib Dems should now deny the bed ever existed.
Those in the party who share Oakeshott’s view are liable to become more vocal next month. Polls show that just 10 per cent of voters plan to back the Lib Dems in the European election and chairman Tim Farron has warned that the party could lose all 12 of its MEPs.
Two debates between Clegg and Ukip’s Nigel Farage – who was judged to have triumphed on both occasions – have exacerbated the gloomy mood in the Lib Dem camp.
But even if his party is hammered next month, Clegg would be reckless to heed those who say it’s time to bail out of government.
If a frequent accusation levelled against the Lib Dems is that their coalition agreement was an example of opportunism trumping principle, then an attempt to extricate themselves because they fear punishment in the polls would hardly change many minds. It would be seen as the cynical act it was. That’s surely not the sort of “distinctive message” Oakeshott intends to deliver.
The Lib Dems’ decision to enter government was a huge leap for a party that had spent many years indulging in the luxury of perpetual opposition. The Lib Dems enjoyed their position on the moral high ground without ever having to make a difficult call or show any leadership.
Rather than sending out the message that coalition was an embarrassing mistake, Clegg should argue that it is evidence his party is mature enough to make difficult decisions. The UK required a government and Clegg was willing to show the leadership and pragmatism required to ensure a government could be formed.
The Lib Dems would be wise to assume that those who have turned their backs on them because of the coalition are gone for the foreseeable future. And, with this in mind, Clegg should be more bullish about the party’s record. It is not, after all, certain that English voters will desert them in quite the numbers that Scots did.
Those who supported the Lib Dems north of the Border before the coalition agreement, had somewhere to go afterwards. The SNP, with its centre-left agenda, was an attractive option for the disillusioned.
There is no such alternative in England, where the party of protest is Ukip and it seems unlikely that Farage and his colleagues will benefit from a desire to punish the Lib Dems.
Of course, some who supported the Lib Dems will shift their allegiances to Labour, but the voting patterns in a number of constituencies will make this a risk for those whose desire is to keep the Conservatives out. In 14 of the Lib Dems’ 20 most marginal seats, they are up against the Tories. Voters turning away from Clegg’s party towards Labour in those seats may play a part in boosting the Conservative result.
Though the Lib Dems cannot quite take for granted victory in those seats, they should be confident that their vote will hold up.
Polls show that Labour currently enjoys a small lead over the Tories. If that continues, then Ed Miliband should be our next Prime Minister and Clegg will be out on his ear (if Labour is the largest party but has no overall majority, then a deal for coalition with the Lib Dems would require the replacement of Clegg).
But if, as many believe it will, the Labour lead crumbles in the weeks before the General Election, then Clegg will be in a reasonably strong position.
Should Cameron win a Tory majority, then the Lib Dems’ time in government is over, but if a second coalition is required then it seems entirely probable that Clegg would continue as Deputy Prime Minister.
Oakeshott’s proposal risks throwing the Lib Dems into chaos and further undermining the party’s credibility.
If Clegg resists pressure to disengage from the Tories, now, then he’ll give his party the best possible chance of returning to power next year. «