Amidst all the noise and confusion on Friday, 7th May 2010, one thing was clear: the Liberal Democrats were in the most powerful position they had ever occupied. True, their leader, ‘I agree with Nick’ Clegg, had failed to translate his overwhelming victories in the TV debates into significant gains in Parliament. But the Lib Dems remained the party in the ascendancy. Despite a better than expected showing, Labour were in tatters, their leader, Gordon Brown, near-universally despised and reviled, their internal politics on the verge of meltdown. David Cameron’s bargain with his own party – back my liberalisations and I’ll bring you power – had spectacularly backfired and his position, externally as well as internally, was greatly weakened.
When they entered coalition negotiations with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats held all the most powerful cards. No, they couldn’t threaten to walk away and form a stable coalition with Labour – the parliamentary arithmetic closed that option to them. But it was in their gift to abandon David Cameron to his fate as a belittled man, clinging desperately to power as the fatally weakened leader of a minority government, or to translate him into a suave, prime ministerial figure at the head of a stable majority. The Liberal Democrats walked into the coalition negotiations with the ability to issue the Conservatives with a list of demands, and an ultimatum: accept these wholesale, or govern as a minority.
Think for a moment what those demands could have been. No increase in tuition fees. Electoral reform without a referendum. No new nuclear power stations, and the cancellation – not postponement – of Trident (it’s been widely ignored in all the high profile fusses this last year, but the Lib Dems’ abandonment of their ‘No Nukes’ stance is one of the things that has most alienated their base). Distinctively liberal positions on immigration, Europe, the NHS, welfare. Vince Cable as chancellor, Menzies Campbell as foreign secretary, and the rules of Downing Street rewritten to make Nick Clegg co-equal in power to the prime minister…
Would the Conservatives ever have signed up for that? No, of course not. They couldn’t have done; the weakness that would have revealed in Cameron would have made his position as Conservative leader untenable. But the refusal would have played into Lib Dem hands.
The party could have taken their seats on the opposition benches, allowing Cameron just enough rope to hang himself in the form of abstentions on key votes, but wringing concession after concession from the minority government in return. The negotiations with the Conservatives wouldn’t have been a one shot, all or nothing deal; the government’s business managers would have had to be in constant contact with the Lib Dems, carefully modifying every single policy to stand a chance of getting any legislation on the statute book. The Conservatives would never have signed up – could never have signed up – to the Lib Dems’ demands, but with some clever haggling Nick Clegg could have got many of them enacted anyway.
And all the while, Clegg and the Lib Dems would have continued in the ascendancy. Every few months they could have inflicted a defeat on the Tories, just to remind them who the real masters were, while loudly insisting to the public that they were proudly standing up for their core values. Clegg could have made himself look strong, principled and statesmanlike, while taking every opportunity to remind the electorate that his hands were tied because they’d suffered a crisis of confidence at the ballot box and had voted for one of the ‘old parties’ instead. And the coup-de-grace? This wouldn’t have just been about Machiavellian manoeuvrings, it would have been about putting into practice Lib Dem policies.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, would have been staggering, bloody and wounded, through a minority government. They’d have tried to impose an austerity budget – then been forced to recant in the midst of parliamentary opposition and the worst street protests in a generation. Every policy they put forward would end up either retracted, or modified out of all recognition. David Cameron’s attention would have been half on staving off backstabbing attacks from his colleagues, half on wheedling his legislation through parliament, and not at all on presenting an appealing image to the electorate at large. The Conservatives’ natural supporters would have been angered and silenced by the daily humiliations heaped upon their party. Their opponents would have been rejuvenated. Floating voters would have seen the party as weak, incompetent and unprincipled. The Conservatives’ poll ratings would have been in freefall.
And every day they spent clinging to power would have made this worse. Every extra week would have weakened the Conservatives and strengthened the Liberal Democrats. When – after what? 18 months? 2 years? 3 at a push? – the minority administration eventually collapsed from exhaustion and infighting, the Liberal Democrats could have gone into the subsequent election stronger than they had been in 2010, and with large sections of the electorate convinced that, actually, Lib Dem MPs can achieve a lot, even without being in power. They wouldn’t have won the election outright – dear me, no – but they’d have emerged from it stronger than they had ever been before, and with the long-term, mainstream success of their party assured.
That’s not what happened, of course. Instead the Lib Dems reached the extraordinary conclusion that the Conservatives were doing them a favour by offering them a place in government. For reasons that defy rational analysis, they became convinced that the Conservatives – who had just lost an election – were in a position of unassailable strength, and that they should be pathetically grateful for the tiny concessions and scant crumbs of power the Conservatives were willing to offer them. The Tory negotiating team must hardly have been able to believe their luck.
The Lib Dems’ weakness in early May 2010 is what is wounding them now, and will continue to wound them for years to come. By joining the Conservative-led government they’ve tied themselves irrevocably to everything that government does. By endorsing without demur the Conservatives’ economic policies, they’ve made themselves, in the public mind, accessories to that party’s aggressive attempts to defend the interests of the super-rich at the expense of the rest of us.
Even worse, by conceding so publicly on such key pledges – why not at least have secured the right to abstain on tuition fees, for God’s sake? Did they forget about all those campaign leaflets? Did they think we would? – they’ve made themselves look opportunistic and unprincipled. The Lib Dems are seen, not just as bearing co-equal responsibility with the Conservatives for the government’s actions, but as being more responsible: the craven conspirators who’ve made it all possible with their treachery and lies. The situation the Lib Dems now find themselves in – where the Conservatives, architects of the worst cuts for generations, have seen their vote hold up because the Lib Dems have soaked up all the public’s hate – is the inevitable consequence of the decisions they took a year ago.
A year on from the general election things could have been so different. Yes, the Lib Dems would have been sitting on the opposition benches. They wouldn’t have had their feet under the cabinet table or the pleasure of being fetched and carried in ministerial limousines. But they’d have won more concessions from the Conservatives, they’d have more of the policies they back being written into legislation, and they’d have achieved all that while immunising themselves against public discontent and buffing up their reputation for principled, statesmanlike behaviour. They’d be looking forward to the next general election as popular darlings, not wondering if it will be the occasion that marks the end of their political careers, and the start of another long period in the political wilderness for their party.
The Conservatives must be feeling pretty pleased with themselves right now. Lose an election, concede on a few things that don’t really matter to you while railroading through your core policies against the overwhelming opposition of the electorate – then see your coalition partners take the blame. It must be hard for them to imagine a better scenario, or to suppress a good belly laugh. But they perhaps shouldn’t laugh too soon.
In some senses, the Liberal Democrats have come through their darkest hour now. They’ve faced the wrath of the electorate, and seen their support destroyed as a result. There are bad times still to come from them, undoubtedly (if I was a Lib Dem MP, I’d still be planning on looking for a new job after the next election), but they can’t sink any lower in the public’s estimation. There’s maybe even a chance – not a great chance, but a chance – that with a more abrasive stance towards their coalition partners they might manage to build up from the position they find themselves in today.
The same can’t be said for the Conservatives. They’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop. The electorate have had their spasm of anger against the Lib Dems, and as a result their effectiveness as a hate-shield for the Conservatives is diminished. The Tories may feel like they’ve dodged a bullet this time, but they shouldn’t feel certain they’ve dodged it forever.
A Conservative majority at the next general election remains unlikely. Even in the best of circumstances, governing parties at Westminster don’t often add support when they stand for re-election. The next few years – as the cuts bite, and the economy fails to soar, and the Libyan entanglement looks like a worse and worse idea, and the old, tribal anti-Toryism gathers pace – are unlikely to be the best of times. Things change, of course, and it would be a foolish person who attempted to predict the result of the next general election four years early. But if I was a Conservative supporter I think my chuckling pleasure in the humiliation of my coalition ‘partners’ would be tempered by fear for my own future.