Nick Clegg speaks at Bloomberg's London headquarters on June 9, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The smaller coalition party nearly always gets smashed – but all is not lost for the Lib Dems

To cement its identity in future coalitions, the party needs to own departments.

Shortly before the 2010 general election, aware that the Conservatives were unlikely to win a majority, an anxious David Cameron asked Angela Merkel what it was like to lead a coalition government. “The little party always gets smashed!” she mischievously replied. As he met the German chancellor in Sweden in recent days, Cameron could have been forgiven for recalling her remark. Like their sister party in Germany, the Free Democrats, which lost all of its seats in the 2013 Bundestag election, the Liberal Democrats have indeed been smashed.

Since 2010, they have lost a third of their members, 1,500 of their councillors, all but one of their MEPs, nine by-election deposits and more than half of their previous opinion-poll support. The Tories, by contrast, have retained most of their 2010 vote share of 36 per cent and have consistently exceeded expectations in local elections. “We knew we would pay a price for working with the Conservatives,” said Nick Clegg in his recent speech at the Bloomberg headquarters in London.

In these circumstances, one might expect there to be little optimism among the Lib Dems. But the shifting plates of British politics have given them hope. With both the Tories and Labour doubtful of winning a majority in 2015, many Lib Dems believe that they will once again act as kingmakers in a “balanced parliament” and extract significant concessions for doing so.

Some are even more sanguine. At a recent parliamentary party away day in Wyboston, Bedfordshire, Danny Alexander declared that the Lib Dems could become the largest party in British politics by 2025. “We were all rolling our eyes, even Clegg’s spads,” one of those present tells me. David Steel’s 1981 exhortation to Liberal activists to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government” looks modest by comparison.

Though it is now rarely recalled, there were those who argued that coalition would enhance, not diminish, the Lib Dems’ popularity. The standard explanation offered for the party’s recurrent midterm slumps was that it failed to receive the media attention devoted to the Conservatives and Labour, a defect rectified by equal treatment at the time of the general election. But with Liberal Democrats in government, this disadvantage would be removed permanently. The more the public saw of the third party, the logic ran, the more it would like it.

That the reverse proved to be the case was partly because of their alliance with the Tories. As Tony Blair shrewdly observed, a party that ran to the left of Labour for three successive elections could not hope to avoid punishment for entering government with a party to its right. Long before Clegg and his fellow Lib Dem ministers walked through the division lobby in favour of higher tuition fees, their poll ratings had collapsed.

The party’s “contamination” by the Conservatives encourages the thought that an alliance with Labour could have a cleansing effect. Clegg’s pledge in his Bloomberg speech to borrow to invest in infrastructure was the latest example of policy convergence between the two parties. But a partnership with the opposition would pose dangers of its own kind. Such is the degree of policy overlap that the Lib Dems would risk becoming indistinguishable from their centre-left rival. The existential question that stalks Clegg – “What is the point of the Lib Dems?” – would become more rather than less insistent in coalition with Labour.

It is in anticipation of this fate that the former Lib Dem minister Jeremy Browne has called for the party to embrace an “unbridled, unambiguous” programme of free-market liberalism. Browne considers the left-leaning party president, Tim Farron, and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, to be examples of what Keynes called “watery Labour men”: social democrats who would be better off with Ed Miliband.

What Browne’s position boasts in intellectual rigour, it lacks in electoral nous. Outside the City of London, there is little appetite for turbo-Thatcherism. Rather than veering to the right, the Lib Dems should adopt other means of differentiating themselves. An increasing number in the party, including on its federal executive, believe it was a mistake for Clegg not to demand control of entire government departments in 2010. His decision instead to spread the Lib Dems across Whitehall made it harder to claim credit for policy achievements and left the party’s junior ministers looking like the helpless hostages of their Tory superiors. The next time parliament is hung, the party should learn from the approach of its Scottish sister, which took control of justice and agriculture in its first Holyrood coalition with Labour in 1999 and prospered in the subsequent election. Far from being wiped out, the party retained all 17 of its seats in 2003 and most of its vote share.

Having named his coalition negotiating team for 2015, Clegg should already be targeting politically attractive departments. A Lib Dem minister could win control of the housing portfolio and take credit for a Macmillan-style building programme, or secure home affairs and act as the guardian of civil liberties. Tim Farron told me: “There’s a lot of wisdom in that . . . When you’re a smaller party, identity is everything. Being known for one or two and, if you’re really lucky, three good things is what you’re after in terms of getting traction with the voters.”

A few days ago, Clegg received a consoling text message from his friend Jan Björklund, the leader of the Swedish Liberal People’s Party (currently polling at 6 per cent). “Us liberals,” he wrote, “must never accept that we can only survive in opposition.” An admirable sentiment – but if the Lib Dems are to avoid being continuously smashed in a new era of hung parliaments, they need to wise up and ensure they are better prepared.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle