East meets Westminster: The state of the Liberal Democrats

IN the second of three columns examining the state of the main parties, Richard Porritt focuses on the Lib Dems

THE Liberal Democrats suffered a hugely disappointing general election in 2010.

They were predicted a better showing, with many believing they would pick up votes from Labour supporters upset with the party’s recent record in Government.

Then, after the first televised leaders’ debate in British history, the country was gripped by Cleggmania with some excitable commentators even predicting the party could finish second. In hindsight these forecasts were foolish.

Much of the polling for the debates gave a slanted view of voting intentions – the public appeared to mix up who they thought performed the best on the night and who they would actually vote for. Predictions of a more fluid electorate ready to jump on political bandwagons were – unfortunately for the Lib Dems – way off the mark.

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Odd then that a leader whose party under-performed at the ballot box should find himself in covernment.

Nick Clegg had little choice but to go into coalition and his first two years around the Cabinet table have proved tough. But let us not forget that he has brought his the Lib Dems more power at a national level than they must have ever thought possible – and if he is clever from here on in – he could still claw back some creditablity before the next general election in 2015.

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As MPs begin to drift back to Westminster in the coming weeks and then as they head off for the conference season tensions are high among the coalition partners. But Mr Clegg will be happier than David Cameron about the situation.

He has the chance to step out of Mr Cameron’s shadow – with enough bravery he could cast himself as a maverick.

Gone are the days when the Liberal Democrats happily nodded along with the Tories and got a slap on the back from the coalition big brothers.

Of course if the partners in government are now apparently no longer going to vote merrily for anything either proposes little will get passed but it should make for a lively next couple of years. And Mr Clegg has nothing to lose – in fact in respect of his own political life he might as well be throwing the goalkeeper up for a last-gasp corner deep in to injury time.

The Lib Dems stand to lose seats across the board in 2015. But if Mr Clegg continues with his rebellion and leaves the PM reeling in the coming months he could become a kind of political folk hero - and someone voters like again.

But the Lib Dems need to choose their battles wisely. Blocking financial measures could prove problematic if the economy continues to worsen and Mr Cameron can start pointing fingers at Lib Dems and Labour.

The boundary review – so longed for by the Conservatives – is a perfect start because the general public do not really care and the only people it damages are the Tories. When Mr Clegg announced his party’s reaction to Lords reform he handled it with aplomb – the right mix of anger and determination. That stance must remain.

But this is fantasy politics. More likely is the Lib Dems will not recover their position unless something seismic happens with the economy.

If the green shoots blossom in record time and the end is in sight by 2015 the Liberal Democrats might manage to hold their seats in the reflected glow. But already the PM is warning austerity will last until 2020.

Even more than 2010, the next election will be about the economy. And on this subject the Liberal Democrats fall between the policy cracks. But some of the brightest brains in their ranks are masterminding the Coalition’s response to the crisis. Danny Alexander and Vince Cable have so far been shielded by their Conservative colleagues.

Which gives the Prime Minister a tricky choice when he comes to reshuffling his cabinet in the coming weeks. Already there are calls for George Osborne to stand aside and Mr Cable to take the reins – this is very unlikely but tempting for the PM because a frontline Lib Dem would finally have their head above the trench.

More likely is David Laws – the brilliant former investment banker who spearheaded the Lib Dem coalition talks – will be welcomed back into the ranks. Mr Laws is respected by the Tories and could even be a peacemaker if Mr Clegg does not go for the all-guns-blazing, death-or-glory route to electoral success.

Three years ago very few Lib Dems thought they would be in power and suffering mid-term blues. And, now they are, there is no political precedence to help predict where the party goes next - They need one of two things: Bravey or a miraculous economic recovery.

Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt

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