With another hung parliament looking increasingly likely in 2015, the Lib Dems' thoughts are turning to a second coalition. But as the interviews with Tim Farron and Jeremy Browne in this week's NS show, the party is sharply divided over whether a partnership with Labour or the Tories is the more desirable outcome.
When I spoke to him last week, Farron lavished praise on Ed Miliband, telling me:
First of all, he’s a polite and nice person. I think he is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party, from their perspective what you’d call the 'soft left'. Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well.
He mischievously added:
And they’re other things too. For all that I think he could have done a lot more on the AV campaign, he did at least have the backbone to come out and back it. He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick [Clegg], so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy.
As the Lib Dem president knows, should Miliband refuse to form a coalition with Clegg in 2015, he could well end up with him again.
But Farron's admiration for Miliband is not shared by Browne, the Home Office minister and an Orange Book ally of Clegg, who told Rafael that Labour is "intellectually lazy, running on empty" and suffering from a "leadership void". Rather than acclaiming Miliband as a model progressive, he praised David Cameron for identifying "the big issue of our time" in the form of "the global race". Perhaps most significantly, he said of Labour: "I just don't think of them as equipped to run the country".
With their interventions, Farron and Browne are offering diametrically opposed visions of their party's future. According to the former, the Lib Dems should unambiguously remain a party of the centre-left, committed to the restoration of the 50p rate of income tax and the eventual abolition of tuition fees, and seeking common ground with Labour. But in the view of the latter, the party’s best hope lies in transforming itself into a British version of the German Free Democratic Party: economically liberal, fiscally conservative and instinctively closer to the Conservatives than Labour.
At present, the Lib Dems are trying to obviate this divide by stating that they will simply align with the largest party. Farron told me that "the electorate will decide who's in power" and that "the chances of us having a choice [of coalition partner] are as close to zero as to be not even worth contemplating". But in an election that could be the closest for decades, it is conceivable that both the Tories and Labour could be in a position to form a majority government with Lib Dem support. As Clegg's europhile party knows better than most, it is not uncommon in other European countries for the second-placed party to take power (Willy Brandt’s SPD administration in Germany and the current Swedish government are notable examples). If the Lib Dems do have a choice of coalition partner in 2015, the party's ideological divisions will burst into the open.