How did it come to this? The Lib Dems’ seven key Coalition moments

by Stephen Tall on November 19, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here yesterday. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

The Coalition hasn’t been exactly (how can I best under-state this?) kind to the Lib Dems.

My party, briefly, took the lead in some polls in April 2010. Some 6,836,248 voters marked their ‘X’ against a Lib Dem candidate’s name the following month. And now, getting on for five years later, a second digit is too rarely needed to show our poll rating. We are regularly bested by Ukip in the popularity stakes, and have seen the Greens and even the SNP edge ahead of us. Ouch.

We can’t say we weren’t warned.

First, by history. The last time the Liberals entered into a formal coalition with the Conservatives, May 1915, it triggered a string of events which very nearly destroyed the party.

And secondly, by Huhne. Andrew Rawnsley confided in his Observer column in September 2010, that “one Lib Dem member of the cabinet recently gave me his private estimate of where the opinion polls will be in about a year’s time. His forecast was … the Lib Dems will collapse to 5%.” When I last saw Chris, prior to his resignation as an MP, I asked him if (as had been assumed in Lib Dem circles) it was his prediction; yes, he confirmed. Though in reality he was both too pessimistic (we’ve yet to dip quite as low as 5%… yet) and too optimistic (if our slump had happened so early it might now happily be in the past).

So how did we get to this point? How did a party whose leader was once more popular than Churchill come to be, less than five years later, a party facing a survival election with a leader only just beating Ed Miliband?

Here are what I think have been the seven key moments for the party, in chronological order, since the formation of the Coalition.

Tuition fees: When Vince Cable stood up in the Commons on 12th October, 2010, to announce he accepted the “main thrust” of the Browne Report’s call for higher university tuition fees, he dumbfounded his party. Most had assumed he would have a trick up his sleeve, some form of graduate tax, which would enable the Lib Dems to claim their new system was fairer than Labour’s. This assumption turned out to be true — the Coalition’s fees system is a de facto graduate tax  with the poorest third of students paying less than before — but by the time anyone had worked this out the damage was done. Nick Clegg’s reputation lay in tatters (ironically, Cable’s own reputation soon recovered, and this perhaps explains the continuing frostiness between the two, culminating in the bizarre decision by Clegg to elbow Vince aside and to anoint Danny Alexander as Lib Dem shadow chancellor).

AV referendum: if fees was the moment Lib Dem innocence died, then the AV referendum was the day the Coalition died. Oh sure, it’s lasted ever since and will go on lasting until May 2015; there has never been a moment when either party would profit from its earlier demise. But that Rose Garden moment of shared endeavour, of radical, Liberal Conservative government, was the victim of the ruthless (and highly effective) Conservative assault on Nick Clegg’s integrity during the referendum campaign. Differentiation would have always kicked in at some stage during the Coalition. That it did so after just one year is thanks to posters such as this. It’s hard to know who’ll get the last laugh, though. Those Conservatives fretting about Ukip splitting the right-wing vote and letting in Ed Miliband would have had a whole lot less to worry about under AV.

Osborne’s 2012 budget: it was an unmitigated disaster, but thankfully not one which negatively impacted the Lib Dems. We could lay claim (and did) to its most popular measure, the biggest ever uplift of the income tax threshold. Meanwhile the Conservatives were forced to defend their decision to cut the top-rate of tax for those earning more than £150,000. The economics for doing so weren’t unreasonable. But it was terrible politics and has done more than any other single action to paint the Conservatives as the party of the rich, looking after their friends’ interests first. That, together with the Granny Tax, gave Ukip the perfect launch-pad for their assault on Tory terra firma, targeting those less well-off older voters who’d stuck with Cameron until then.

Health and Social Care Act (NHS Bill): Cameron famously said in 2006 that his priorities for government could be easily summed up: “I can do it in three letters: NHS.” He tried to neutralise Labour scare tactics in 2010 by pledging to ring-fence health spending. The Coalition Agreement stated it would “stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care”. All these good intentions were kaiboshed by Andrew Lansley’s bill, so convoluted even its supporters were unable succinctly to explain its benefits. It hurt the Conservatives, and inflicted significant damage on the Lib Dems, too: the party lost further voters and members just at the point when its poll ratings had started to recover a little.

House of Lords reform: if the Lib Dems do survive the May 2015 election with at least 30 MPs, as I think we will, we will have one man to thank (though he may not thank us for our thanking): Conservative MP Jesse Norman. He it was who turbo-charged the summer 2012 backbench Tory rebellion which torpedoed the Coalition’s plans to reform the House of Lords (as promised in all three parties’ 2010 manifestos). Cameron, unable to convince his own party to back him, had no choice but to renege on the Coalition Agreement, the first time either party had gone back on its word. This, in turn, left Clegg with no choice but to extract an eye for an eye, and stymie the constituency boundary review. This had been due to re-draw the political map of the UK for 2015 to the likely benefit of the Conservatives — and the potential obliteration of the Lib Dems, whose incumbency advantage it would have dashed. Thanks, Jesse: my party owes you one.

Secret Courts: Nick Clegg said in 2011: “You shouldn’t trust any government, actually including this one. The natural inclination of government is to … accrue power to itself in the name of the public good.” He was right then, but wrong in March 2013, when he up-ended the party’s opposition to the extension of Closed Material Procedures (aka ‘secret courts’) in which the accused might not be shown the evidence being used against them. As one party member who resigned remarked, ‘Kafka was a warning not a manual’. Few beyond the Lib Dems even noticed the issue; but, within my party, it destroyed at a stroke the goodwill which had been generated by victory in the Eastleigh by-election a fortnight before. The chunk of capital Nick had accrued there was cheaply spent supporting a policy which we all knew (and so did Nick) he would have opposed in opposition.

Nick v Nigel: the last roll of the dice? Most of us had assumed that, at 10 per cent in the polls, Lib Dem support had bottomed out last spring. It made sense, then, for Nick Clegg to lay down the gauntlet to Nigel Farage, to make a virtue of the party’s pro-Europeanism: ‘In Europe, in work’ was to be the party’s rallying cry, highlighting our belief that the UK’s membership of the EU is good for business (a view with which business agrees). But then a couple of things went wrong. First, somewhere along the way the party’s slogan changed (to this day no-one apparently knows how, why or by whom) to ‘The party of IN’, a vacuity which appeared to confirm the suspicions of those who think my party is full of starry-eyed Europhiles in love with the EU for its own sake. And secondly, Nick’s sure debating touch, well-deployed in his first set-to with the Ukip leader, deserted him in the follow-up. “What will the EU look like in 10 years’ time?” a voter asked: a dream question for a pro-EU reformer like Nick. But he fluffed it: “much the same as it is now,” he replied wanly. A few weeks later, my party was drubbed, losing all but one of our MEPs, and trailing the Greens. Nick survived, but only just.

There you have it: seven key moments that help explain why the Lib Dems are where we now are. All are, to one extent or another, failures. Yet there has been one success, too: the Coalition has endured. Not gladly, but it remains intact. As Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne pointed out a few weeks ago: “If the coalition was standing in the general election in May, in my view it would win comfortably.” I think he’s right, though of course we’ll never know (for which many in both parties will be grateful). Coalition government, it turns out, can work. Just as well: this one’s unlikely to be the last.

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