Below I looked at the AV referendum. Although that was the single largest mass slaughtering by the public of a Liberal Democrat Sacred Cow, the electorate seemed determined to cause the Liberal Democrats as much electoral pain as possible. They lost seats in English local elections; were practically annihilated as the governing party in any northern English towns; were humiliated in Scotland and pushed into fourth in Wales (clearly Lembit Opik got thrown out at the right time). This was in many ways predictable: it may be a simplistic cliché to regard Liberal Democrat core support as sandal wearing perpetual oppositionalist hippies but there is a certain truth therein. More importantly most Liberal Democrat supporters have traditionally been more left than right leaning: during Blair’s pomp Liberal Democrat support (and party membership) often seemed left of Labour let alone the Tories.
After Charles Kennedy was forced to resign over his drinking and Ming Campbell over his oldness, the party elected in Nick Clegg, a politician much, much more of the Classical Liberal laissez faire school of politics. Even Clegg’s semi aristocratic background spoke to this as the rebirth for the twenty first century of Lord John Russell’s party of the potato famine. Whilst the preceding sentence may be deliberate hyperbole, the problem is that whilst the Liberal Democrat leadership had moved significantly to the right, neither the great mass of the party nor, most definitely, the majority of Liberal Democrat support had moved any where near there.
This support base found it extremely difficult to swallow the Westminster version of the Chuckle Brothers which Clegg and Cameron visited on the nation as soon as they got the opportunity to get into Mr. Brown’s former home. The dumping of the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to end tuition fees was simply the most obvious outworking of what many Liberal Democrat voters and members saw as a monumental betrayal. The fact that Clegg seemed so happy with the fact that he has sold his political soul seemed to irk many Lib Dems. The thought that they had been duped and that Clegg was much closer to Margaret Thatcher’s “One of Us” than he was to their Birkenstock wearers convention must have been even worse. Clegg seemed accidentally to point to this when he suggested this evening: “there are some very strong memories of what life was like under Thatcherism in the 1980s, and somehow a fear that that’s what we’re returning to.”
In contrast a few weeks before the 2010 election Clegg had this to say about Thatcher: “I’m 43 now. I was at university at the height of the Thatcher revolution and I recognise now something I did not at the time: that her victory over a vested interest, the trade unions, was immensely significant. I don’t want to be churlish: that was an immensely important visceral battle for how Britain is governed.”
The suggested solution for the Liberal Democrats is that they now need to be much harder in their approach to the coalition: they need to stop looking so happy with the Tories (where have we heard that about coalitions before). In addition it is being suggested that they need to get further concessions from the Conservatives: a specific issue for the near future being health reform.
That suggestion is itself highly problematic: on this issue in the recent past the Liberal Democrat leadership were actualy to the right of the Tories. At least currently the Tories are still claiming to be committed to an NHS not based on insurance systems. The Liberal Democrat leadership in their infamous Orange Book, however, argued in favour of an NHS based in part on social insurance, including contributions from the voluntary and private sector. David Laws – the disgraced former Chief Secretary to the Treasury who did not admit that he was paying his lover out of Westminster expenses to live in his (the partner’s) house – who wrote the relevant Orange Book chapter- propounded his ideas here in 2004 in the Independent. This problem may not be the end of the world. Clegg (also a contributor to the Orange Book, as was Vince Cable) may be able safely, if dishonestly, to claim that the Liberal Democrats do not believe in the potential part privatisation of the NHS: even in their darkest fears the Birkenstock brigade would surely not believe their leader could commit such heresy.
More difficult, however, is the fact that Clegg and his right of centre Liberal Democrat colleagues in the cabinet have relatively little political traction over Cameron. They would be unlikely to go so far as to threaten to bring the government down: if by some chance they did threaten such, the gun they would be holding to David Cameron’s head would actually be pointing the wrong way, towards them. Any election held in the near future would almost certainly see the political annihilation of the Liberal Democrats and almost all of their ministers.
The Lib Dems are more likely to try to appear more generally difficult and less cosy with the Tories: a battle a day or something near it may replace the chuckle brothers. However, the electorate usually punish governments which seem divided and quarrelsome and if the Liberal Democrats are seen to be the difficult and quarrelsome ones it is likely that the electorate will punish them the most.
Some of those on the Liberal Democrat left like Simon Hughes might be tempted to jump ship: this will presumably be actively encouraged by Ed Milliband and Labour. For Nick Clegg and those close to him, however, the only option seems to be to stick the current arrangement out and hope something turns up: almost anything else seems to offer the certainty of political oblivion. That may make Clegg less inclined to conduct uncivil war with his Conservative senior partners in government (especially after yesterday, it is even more clear who are the senior and who are the junior partners in this coalition). Clegg’s only other hope might be somehow to keep the coalition together into the next election and fight it as a coalition (exactly as Lloyd George did in 1918). That extremely faint hope might be the only thing which could sustain Clegg as a serious player in British politics. For a man of moderate right of centre politics and so clearly willing to set his sails to the prevailing wind, such a plan of action, dumping his party and becoming a twenty first century National Liberal might be the best and most attractive option. That of course would make a strong argument against being too difficult in his relationship with his Tory friends.
As I said before Nick Clegg seems, like the Witch King of Angmar, to have sold his soul for a ring of power. Clegg must hope that David Cameron is as generous as Sauron the Black was in Lord of the Rings. Antagonising the holder of your political soul and the one with power over your political life and death is not especially clever. As such in private Clegg should keep chuckling and playing tennis with his boss: even in public he might be wiser not to be too difficult. That of course will no doubt further annoy the sandal wearers. If his problems were not so self inflicted and Clegg were not so clearly obsessed with power one might almost feel sorry for him. I suspect many of the electorate, however, cannot wait for Eowyn to cut his head off.