Poor old Lib Dems. Their conference in Bournemouth has been on since Saturday but has attracted only dutiful coverage by public broadcasters, a few headlines when Vince Cable accused Boris Johnson of being a “Poundland Donald Trump” and raised eyebrows when he boldly asserted that he is a prime minister in waiting.
Cable’s first speech as party leader tomorrow might prompt another brief flurry of headlines, but the man described as Dr Doom for his gloomy but ultimately accurate predictions of looming economic disaster in 2007, hasn’t yet transformed his party’s fortunes.
The number of Lib Dem MPs was scythed from 57 in 2015 to just eight in 2015 rising slightly to 12 in the June snap election. Evidently, the Lib Dems have been punished for their five year coalition with the Tories – today the “third party” of British politics has barely a third of the SNP’s MP total.
What’s the problem?
Well according to former leader Paddy Ashdown: “People see us, not as a force for change but as a part of the establishment.”
Ashdown is apparently worried the Lib Dems will “die” if they don’t change but may be too weak to lead the “radical restructuring” of the “progressive centre” the country needs.
If prominent Lib Dems had the slightest ability to see themselves as ithers see them, it might help. The wannabe radical Paddy Ashdown is properly Lord Ashdown.
The economic expert Vince Cable is properly Sir Vince Cable.
And the Lib Dem MP who claims “the vast majority” of the public want Vince as PM over Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn is not mere Ed Davey, but Sir Ed Davey.
Oh and don’t forget former deputy leader and coalition justice minister Sir Simon Henry Ward Hughes. Along with Sir Vince and Sir Edward, he accepted a knighthood after losing his seat in the 2015 election. Indeed the party of electoral reform has 100 members in the House of Lords and just 12 in the Commons.
Does the Lib Dem leadership not realise accepting gongs and titles means they are the Establishment? Every time those titles are used, voters are subtly reminded of the austerity delivery job the compliant Lib Dems did for the cunning Tories and of their willingness to accept status upgrades as payoffs.
Even though members of Old/New Labour were also fond of personal preferment, few save Sir Keir Starmer have a prominent role in government these days and few would doubt Jeremy Corbyn’s long-standing opposition to such elitism. The SNP, of course, simply refuses to nominate anyone for the Lords.
All of which makes the Lib Dems look like a party of the Establishment – whatever radical policies they espouse.
And of course, famously, the Lib Dems are quite capable of espousing radical policies they will ditch once political power beckons.
The fateful, five-year coalition with the Tories forced Lib Dems to help deliver a programme of austerity, including higher university fees, thus breaking a manifesto pledge. Ironically it was Labour who actually introduced student fees – the Lib Dems presided over raising them.
But only political anoraks remember that.
Now, even the Tories are distancing themselves from tuition fees. Treasury proposals drawn up for Chancellor Philip Hammond ahead of his autumn Budget recommend capping the cost for some degrees at less than £7,500 a year, according to yesterday’s Sunday Times. No wonder.
The Tories were shaken into action when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saw huge support from young people at the snap election after his pledge to scrap fees south of the border. And though no-one has really analysed whether abolition helped the SNP achieve a decade in power, it has certainly helped create a pro-indy bias amongst younger voters.
Sadly for the Lib Dems, they alone are left associated with this deeply unpopular policy.
As the once Lib-Dem-endorsing Economist observed mournfully last week: “Forty-eight per cent of Britons voted to remain in the European Union. Millions of people think that Theresa May is a discredited mediocrity and that Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, is a dangerous fantasist. And yet the only party that campaigned to keep Britain in the EU and that proudly stands for the “open and tolerant” centre against extremists on left and right can’t even muster 8 per cent of the vote.
“What should be the vital centre has become a no-man’s-land, if not a killing field.”
So can the party’s fortunes change? Maybe.
On the one hand a UK-wide party with just 12 MPs lacks credibility, and the presence of a 73 year-old at the helm – albeit a sprightly, intelligent and personable pensioner – suggests the Lib Dems have run out of other candidates. Mind you the DUP currently has more clout than the SNP and Lib Dems combined with fewer MPs than either thanks to its strategic importance supporting the minority Conservative administration.
Small parties can be powerful “Kingmakers” and though the Lib Dems will never touch another Tory coalition, Vince Cable’s leadership does allow them to offer something genuinely new to UK politics – an anti-Tory alliance.
Cable told LBC Radio in London last week: “In the long term, we have no idea how our politics is going to evolve and it could well involve parties working together in the national interest.”
This could be dismissed as opportunism – the Lib Dems will find it hard to appear radical when the two main parties are already polarising and “extreme.” But bold joint action with Labour to combat inequality could be game-changing for the Lib Dems, proving the bona fides of their new-found determination to reform taxation of property and wealth, and would test the DUP’s commitment to the Tories since they, for example, oppose the bedroom tax.
Meanwhile, senior Labour MEP David Martin has advocated a similar alliance between Labour and the SNP, urging them to put aside differences over independence and focus on areas of common ground like health, education and tax-raising.
Both Scottish Labour leadership candidates immediately dismissed the idea, but strategic joint working to pick off a weak Prime Minister and rework Brexit must be on the cards.
So Sir Vince’s maiden conference speech as leader might well be worth hearing.