My Total Politics column: The Lib Dems are still suffering the hangover-from-hell that we woke up to on the morning of 7 May 2010

by Stephen Tall on August 30, 2013

Lib Dem conferences used to be nice and simple. A couple of thousand freakishly zealous activists would schlep off to the seaside, engage in five days’ earnest debates ignored by the media barring speculation about that year’s leadership crisis, and agree a load of policy that made us feel good but which stood absolutely no chance of troubling the statute books. We’d then return home, probably a bit too piously pleased with ourselves, ready to burn some shoe leather pushing more Focus leaflets through letterboxes to convert the good folk of Localsville to our cause.

Then we did something that no political party with ambitions to growing its popularity should ever do. We entered government. Life is no longer so nice and simple as it was in opposition. (Nigel Farage take note.) Even worse, we entered into a coalition government. With the Tories. It’s one thing to take responsibility for your own mistakes (*cough* tuition fees), quite another to have to take responsibility for theirs as well (*cough* bedroom tax).

My party’s still suffering the hangover-from-hell that we woke up to on the morning of 7 May 2010. Until then we had been able to maintain a pretence, at least for our own benefit, that we would form a majority government and introduce our manifesto wholesale. And if that didn’t happen in one bound we’d wangle it so that electoral reform guaranteed us our fair share of MPs the election after. The dousing of Cleggmania followed by the crushing AV referendum defeat was a double whammy. Our bright hope of changing the face of British politics has given way to the grim reality that 2015 will be what party president Tim Farron has termed a “survival election”.

It’s all much easier for the Tories. Sure, they’ve had to compromise in government: “poor old David Cameron is governing with one hand tied behind his back,” laments Peter Bone, the comedy caricature Tory MP. But they can credibly pitch to the voters at the next election what an unshackled Tory government would do. The Lib Dems, though, face the unappetising prospect of an election campaign dominated by journalists asking of each of our pledges, “But do you actually mean this one? Is it a red line or is it up for grabs?”

As the interminable hangover lingers, Lib Dems are getting more grumpy with each other. Nick Clegg accuses activists of “hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition” – a pretty ungracious response to a party which has stuck by him and the Coalition even as hundreds of our councillors are scythed at successive local elections through no fault of their own. Yet Clegg and his team feel they get scant credit from activists for constantly battling to thwart Tory efforts to sneak through illiberal measures on civil liberties and immigration within a Coalition in which they’re out-numbered 5-to-1.

In truth, both the leadership and activists are coming to terms with having less power in government than they would like. That feeling of impotence is turning into a destructive passive-aggressiveness against each other. It’s been on simmer for months, but we’re likely to see it bubbling over when the party meets in Glasgow this month. The big debate will focus on the economy, an issue the leadership craftily dodged discussing when the Lib Dem conference last met in March when a triple dip recession appeared possible. But this time, with even the double dip erased from the history books and the British economy picking up pace, the leadership – afforced by the perennially popular Vince Cable – will be confident of victory for a motion which is broadly supportive of the Government’s record. At least I assume they must be because Nick Clegg’s been lined up as the concluding speaker.

That doesn’t mean the leadership will emerge unscathed. Lib Dem members are, after all, a feistily independent bunch: they will inflict at least one bloody nose on Nick, partly on the principle of the issue (whichever one it is) and partly to show they can. There are plenty of potential flare-ups. For example, there’s a proposal to drop the party’s opposition to tuition fees (yes, in spite of everything, the Lib Dems are still officially against them, though I don’t know anyone who thinks we can seriously put that to the voters again). Or there’s the cautious welcome offered to well-regulated fracking. Emergency motions on the detention of David Miranda or British intervention in Syria, for instance, could also throw a curve-ball.

The most likely defeat, however, will be on Danny Alexander’s half-hearted proposal to oppose both like-for-like Trident replacement and nuclear disarmament and instead triangulate a middle-way of “taking a couple of steps down the ‘nuclear ladder’ of capabilities” (as the party has excruciatingly explained it). Desperate to find a compromise that will please everyone, we have put forward a policy that pleases almost no-one. But the plain fact is that, unless and until we can persuade either Labour or the Tories to adopt our approach, whatever conference decides won’t matter a jot. In fact, it’ll be just like the old days.