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Nick Clegg’s taken up the hokey-cokey. One leg in, one leg out of the coalition

December 7, 2014 2:40 PM
By Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems were right to go into coalition but now their leader has a tricky balancing act to win over voters.

The death of Jeremy Thorpe reminds me of one of my favourite historical what ifs? The high point of his career was the election of February 1974 that resulted in a split verdict and a hung parliament. Ted Heath's Tories had won the largest share of the vote, but Harold Wilson's Labour was a nose ahead in parliamentary seats. Thorpe's Liberals had secured more than six million votes, a postwar record for them. It translated into just 14 MPs, but that was enough to give them the balance of power. Heath tried to persuade the Liberals to be his life support.

Thorpe was smuggled into Number 10 to negotiate a deal that would have brought Liberals into government for the first time since Churchill's wartime coalition. His personal reward would have been a senior seat in the cabinet. Home secretary was mooted. The Liberal party rebelled against getting into bed with the Tories, Heath was forced to call for the removal vans and was subsequently sacked as Conservative leader. Labour took office. What if the Heath-Thorpe negotiation had succeeded? What if there had been a Con-Lib coalition in 1974? One of the fascinating possibilities is that there might have been no Margaret Thatcher. In so much as she would be remembered today, it would be as a middle-ranking member of the cabinet notorious for depriving schoolchildren of their free milk in Heath's first term before being fired for disloyalty during his second.

The Con-Lib coalition would have been rocked by sensational scandal when Thorpe was charged with conspiracy to murder his alleged gay lover. He would have had to resign. You couldn't have a home secretary facing a murder trial at the Old Bailey. It is likely that the coalition would have collapsed. Even if the government had somehow managed to stagger on, with the economy in such a mess that the IMF had to be asked for an emergency loan and strikes by trade unions so crippling that they became known as Heath's Winter of Discontent, Labour would have been set fair to win the next election. Reaping the benefits of the North Sea oil revenues, which began to flow in the early 80s, Labour then went on to enjoy many years in office.

Or maybe not. There are several plausible versions of what might have happened next. That's the point of what ifs? They demonstrate that many different time lines can flow from one pivotal moment of history. The path not taken in Thorpe's era meant that the Liberals had evolved into the Lib Dems and waited for 36 years to pass before they were presented with another chance to enter government. That explains in a big way why they grabbed at the invitation when David Cameron made his offer to share power when the last election produced a hung parliament. Some Lib Dem activists, and many of their voters, have since had buyers' remorse. The party's dolorous condition is confirmed by every poll that places them fifth in the national rankings, behind Ukip and the Greens.

That presents us with a more contemporary counterfactual. What if Nick Clegg's party had spurned David Cameron's offer? It is a fair guess that the Lib Dems would be a great deal more popular today had they not gone into coalition with the Tories. Untainted by power, uncompromised by broken promises and not implicated in the cuts, they would still be playing their old role of party of protest. They would likely be playing it very successfully to the increased number of voters who scream a plague on all your houses. Instead of counting their lost deposits at byelections, they'd be tallying their byelection gains.

Yet I still think that they made the right decision to enter government with the Conservatives. The numbers never truly added up for a workable deal with Labour so the real alternative to coalition with David Cameron was to let the Tories rule on their own as a minority government. The Lib Dems might well be a lot more popular had they stayed on the opposition benches, but at a deeper level there would have been an enduring price to pay for spurning the chance to govern. They might have had to wait another quarter century before the next opportunity came round. They might have had to wait forever. Had they rejected office, the country would have made an indelible mental note that the Lib Dems were not a party serious about power.

That was always their old handicap, going back to Thorpe's day and even further. Voters who quite liked the look of them hesitated in the polling booth because the Liberals never won - "a wasted vote" - and had no experience of office. One of the beneficial things that coalition has done for them is to remove that handicap. Their MPs have been disciplined. Much more so than the Tories and sometimes to a fault. Their ministers have generally proved to be competent. Some of their number - Steve Webb, the pensions minister, is an example - will leave legacies of reform that will be enduring. They've proved that they can take tough decisions - and have paid the price in unpopularity for that. A party that used to make a big, smug thing of its piety has also shown that it is just as prone to break its word as the Tories and Labour - and they have been punished for that as well.

The transition has exposed just how much of the previous Lib Dem vote was thin top soil that was going to be blown away the moment their hands were dirtied with power. The protest chunk of their vote has gone off elsewhere, mainly to Ukip. Those who voted Lib Dem on the basis that they were a leftish alternative to Labour have either reverted to Ed Miliband's party or migrated to the Greens. What remains? The polls have been giving us a pretty consistent answer. The Lib Dem core vote looks to be about 8-9% of the electorate, a third of what they scored in 2010.

They are resigned to losing many of their Labour-facing seats, especially in the north, and are being quietly ruthless about how they deploy their meagre resources. Paddy Ashdown, who will chair their election campaign, and Ryan Coetzee, the party's chief strategist, are presiding over a pretty merciless process of triage to identify which of their seats might be saveable and which aren't winnable. They have so far been lucky that candidates in seats that have been written off haven't made a public fuss about it. Their hopes of retaining a decent level of representation in parliament are pinned on hanging on to seats in the south where they are principally up against the Tories. They will need to persuade left of centre and centrist voters to prefer them to the Conservatives. This is sometimes known as the "nosepeg" strategy because it will partly depend on convincing natural Labour voters in Tory/Lib Dem marginals to hold their noses and vote Lib Dem on the grounds that they are the lesser evil compared with the Tories.

This will condition their behaviour during the fag-end months of the coalition's life. You no longer see Nick Clegg sitting beside David Cameron during prime minister's questions and joining the Tory jeers at Labour. In fact, the Lib Dem leader has absented himself from recent sessions of PMQs altogether and even went missing from the government frontbench for the autumn financial statement. Rather than being a nodding dog at the shoulder of George Osborne, Mr Clegg decided he'd rather be in Penzance - about as far as you can get from Westminster without falling off Land's End. For this, he has been mocked for running away. One of his own, the former Lib Dem minister Jeremy Browne says: "The danger is we cast ourselves with one foot in government and one foot out."

But what else can they really do? The Lib Dems' hopes of hanging on to a respectable number of MPs now rest on three things. One is exploiting the incumbency factor, which they think will save more of their seats than the national polls suggest. The second is getting some respect - they will be grateful even if that respect is very grudging - from at least some voters for having demonstrated that they can do government.

A collapse of the coalition in total acrimony won't serve the Lib Dems because Nick Clegg will need to argue that this form of government works. Otherwise, what has it all been about? At the same time, they have to hope that they still have appeal to some moderate, centrist voters as a counterweight and restraint on the red tribe to their left and the blue brigade on their right. They can't pretend that they haven't been in government with the Conservatives, but it is also essential that they highlight their differences with the Tories in the run-up to the election.

One leg in, one leg out. Nick Clegg is adopting what we might call the hokey-cokey position. It won't look terribly dignified. It is going to be mocked by the media and their competitors. In the end, it may not work and they will all fall down.

Yet I don't see that they've got much of an alternative but to try it. And at least it doesn't involve a dog being shot and a murder trial at the Old Bailey. If you are a Lib Dem, you must count every mercy.