There was a joke going around Westminster in 2010, when the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with the Conservatives. If you phoned Lib Dem headquarters, it ran, and asked for a copy of the party’s manifesto, the answer was: “Sorry, we’ve sold out.” At the time, even newly empowered Lib Dem Cabinet ministers allowed themselves a chuckle at the gag. Now, they aren’t laughing.
Nick Clegg is paying the price of his decision in 2010 to join in a coalition with a party with very different views from his own on everything from Europe to immigration to constitutional reform. It was a gamble, the consequences of which are now shaking the party.
The Lib Dem record in government has been mixed. There have been successes, such as the raising of the personal income tax allowance, which will increase to £9,205 from April 2013. The party also scored a victory when it managed to block Conservative plans for a cut in inheritance tax. There have also been successes in the introduction of the pupil premium, which commits more government money to the schooling of disadvantaged children; the restoration of the link between the state pension and earnings; and a plan, announced by Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, to crack down on tax evasion.
But there have been painful defeats. The “No” vote in the referendum to change Britain’s electoral system to the Alternative Vote system means that Lib Dem hopes of electoral reform may have been destroyed for a generation. Opposition to the proposed reforms was encouraged by Conservatives. The Lib Dems also dropped their objection to the removal of the 50p tax rate for high earners, which George Osborne scrapped in this year’s budget. The recent failure to secure House of Lords reform was also a sore defeat for Clegg and his party. Perhaps the most damaging of all was the Lib Dems’ acquiescence in the debate over university tuition fees. Before the election the party had said it would oppose a rise in fees, but once in power, the coalition raised the cap on fees to £9,000.
It is not the first time that the Lib Dems have found themselves trailing alarmingly in the polls. Senior party figures are quick to point out that there are two and half years before the next election, which gives time for a comeback. But this is an optimistic analysis, and…