by David Talbot
It would be cruel to deny the Liberal Democrats some light relief from the two years of relentless drudgery they have had endured. Holding a seat they have held for some twenty years is seemingly a cause for wild celebration in today’s Liberal Democratic rump. Overly-excited, and optimistic, Lib Dem officials even audaciously briefed the Guardian that the party would now extend their sights to gaining Conservative seats at the next general election. The bravado is breathtaking, but one has to question the extent that the officials even believed it themselves. Still, it is a poke in the eye to their comrades in the coalition and a reminder to the electorate at large that they mostly still exist.
Let Nick Clegg enjoy his moment. Once lauded to the skies as another Churchill he surely must know that this is as good as it gets. Leading a party on the ascendance merely two and a half years ago he gives the appearance of a man horribly tormented by the reality in which he now finds himself. His party’s paradox ever since it was usurped by the Labour party over a century ago is that is has strove for influence in a hung parliament. Yet the moment they entered it, it hung them.
The Conservative’s masterstroke, having inexplicably failed to win an outright majority, was to in effect buy themselves a comfortable one with Liberal Democrat lobby fodder. The much-heralded Programme for Government, released all too beautifully in the Downing Street rose garden, was short term glory for the Liberal Democrats, but a longer-term suicide note.
But their downfall may not be solely of others bidding. When the Liberal Democrats joined the coalition, the historic rules of British politics changed. A party with much to say, and traditionally no one to say it to, they suddenly found themselves centre stage. For some in the party, much like the Labour left, this was a step too far. They had become quiescent and comfortable in the role that, truth be told, they really rather liked – perennial opposition. Many then, and indeed still now, must decide whether they want to be a party of government, with all the inherent responsibilities, or whether they would prefer to go back to being a depository of protest.
The past decade saw a golden opportunity for the Lib Dems to recapture the ground stolen from them by Labour a century ago. To the left of Labour in their constituencies, and to the right in Tory heartlands, it helped them win seats. But this benign fog can no longer continue if they wish to be a party of government and, for all his failures, Nick Clegg has attempted to drag a party of piecemeal local politics to one of serious standing on the national stage.
Clegg can have his Eastleigh glory. He may have chosen glory in death through the coalition, but a much more serious question shortly awaits his party. You joined the Lib Dems knowing, and no doubt some even wanting, the comfort of opposition. Two years out from a general election, with all the small certainty that can be mustered, a repeat hung parliament looms over our politics. If that is the outcome, just what do the Lib Dems fear most? Will they exchange responsibility with power for power without responsibility, and retire resentfully to preach from the backbenches.
The Lib Dem leader has, against high odds, kept this ramshackle of a party together through two and a half years of brutal politics. A party that for so long represented no great interest, nor held office since the advent of universal franchise, will soon face an even bigger test than the one Clegg set them in 2010. Having survived to 2015, will they survive beyond?
David Talbot is a political consultant