Why the Lib Dems' funding crisis could end the coalition early

Faced with mounting debts, the party may be forced to leave government in order to reclaim the "short money" provided to opposition parties.

Whether or not Joan Edwards's £520,000 bequest was intended for the government of the day or whichever party formed the government, there's no doubt that the Lib Dems could have done with the money (they received £99,423 based on their share of MPs and ministers). The party ran a deficit of £410,951 last year (the only one of the three main parties to do so) largely due to a 13% fall in its membership to 42,501, a decline of 35% since 2010 (when it stood at 65,038) and the lowest annual figure in the party's 23-year history.

While the party insists that its Finance & Administration Committee "has taken steps to ensure that satisfactory surpluses will be achieved in 2013 and 2014" (having previously projected a surplus of £200,000 for 2012), this will likely mean cutting back on campaign spending, something the party can ill afford to do given the political obstacles it faces and the decimation of its councillor base (many of whom pay a tithe of 10% to their local parties). 

Lib Dem finances have also been hit by the loss of "short money", the state funding made available to assist opposition parties with their costs. The party received £1.7m from this source in 2009-10 and its removal forced it to make more than 20 staff redundant. Over the five year parliament, the loss amounts to nearly £9m. 

With an eye to this, one scenario put to me by several in Westminster is that the Lib Dems will ultimately be forced to return to opposition in advance of the 2015 general election in order to reclaim the short money they'll need to mount anything like an adequate campaign. 

It's worth noting that before the defeat of the boundary changes in January, there was talk of the Tories doing a "cash-for-seats" deal with the Lib Dems under which the party would receive millions in state funding in return for supporting the review. It didn't come to pass (would anything have looked more grubby?) but it shows that the issue hasn't escaped the attention of Conservative ministers. Rather than an epic tussle over policy, the coalition could yet fall based on the inescapable fact that the Lib Dems are running out money. 

Nick Clegg makes a speech at the G8 Open for Growth - Trade, Tax andTransparency conference at Lancaster House in central London on June 15, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.