Leader: Resignation of uneasy Lib Dem may benefit SNP

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Hugh O'Who? Until his public resignation at the weekend, few had heard of Hugh O'Donnell, a Liberal Democrat Central Scotland List MSP. His record at Holyrood may best be described as one marked by brilliant silences.

But his resignation as a candidate will have resonance. Indeed, it has already brought support from colleagues including the lugubrious former Lib Dem MSP grandee, Donald Gorrie. Mr O'Donnell has attacked the subservience of the party's Scottish leadership to the policies of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. He writes of watching "helplessly from the sidelines as this Westminster government has attacked every vulnerable group in Scotland with some of the most Draconian policies I have ever seen in the name of cuts".

His disillusion will be shared by many Lib Dems, particularly those more used to harvesting the politics of protest and espousing local causes and the grievances of community groups. For a party which, up until a recent intervention by it's Scottish campaign director, George Lyon, has presented itself as a party of the Centre Left, jumping into bed with the Conservatives has brought heartache. Misery has been particularly evident over the somersault on tuition fees and across a budget deficit reduction plan required to rein in public spending. Given the backcloth of public net debt soaring to a record 1 trillion in 2011-12, this always looked more of a national government with coalition characteristics dealing with an emergency than a political coalition.

Nevertheless, one of the rewards for the Lib Dems - in addition to a return of a third party to government after some 70 years - is the referendum on AV which, if successful, could potentially see a sharp increase in the incidence of coalition government with all the painful compromise that coalitions inevitably involve. It is odd the Lib Dems seem to find the reality of coalitions difficult, when the electoral systems they favour make coalition inevitable. Now the party faces serious defection by supporters as their opponents make the most of the discomfiture. However, it has strong roots in many constituencies across Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, and it would be foolish to underestimate the potential of its leader, Tavish Scott, to do well in the forthcoming debates.

No-one in the Westminster coalition is pushing through this deficit reduction plan out of popularity, but because, after years of spending and borrowing excess, public finances need to be brought under control. Big government has to slim down and deploy its resources more intelligently and nimbly. There is nothing inherently anti-liberal about a move to balanced budgets. But that Mr O'Donnell has chosen to break ranks now, at the start of a tough election, poses real problems for an already pressured party leadership.

An altogether more disciplined SNP could be the beneficiary of switching by footloose Lib Dems.