Coalition was not kind to Nick Clegg. Photo: Getty
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The Lib Dems’ painful lesson: splitting the difference doesn't work

The Lib Dems became the anti-conviction party.

The Liberal landslide of 1906 was, George Dangerfield observed, a victory from which they never recovered. One hundred and four years later, the success of the Liberal Democrats in 2010 - one million extra votes and Nick Clegg’s appointment as Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government -  now looks very similar. 

"The little party always gets smashed," Angela Merkel told David Cameron in 2010. But there was nothing inevitable about the Lib Dems losing 48 seats on election night. It reflected something much more profound than the sense of betrayal engendered by voting to treble tuition fees: the failure of the Lib Dems to say what they were for.

Sure, it was obvious what they opposed. Clegg’s conference speech in 2013 bragged of 16 Tory policies the Lib Dems had blocked. The party said it was needed to give the Tories a heart and Labour a head. But in the process the Lib Dems assumed an almost robotic tendency, seeming to define themselves entirely by adopting the midpoint between Labour and the Conservatives on every issue. The Lib Dems became the anti-conviction party, who needed to check what everyone else thought before they worked out what they did.

Some Lib Dems had seen the perils of this approach. The electorate did not want an “insipid moderation”, Jeremy Browne warned this year. “Whatever liberalism is, it is not defined by where the other parties choose to pitch themselves or by measuring the distance between them and splitting it in half.” Once the party of the radical centre, the Lib Dems sleepwalked into repreenting mushy and timid centrism.

It could have been different. Clegg made a poor strategic choice when ministerial positions were allocated. He should have made the party own complete departments. Clegg could have become Education Secretary, declaring the Lib Dems the party of education and social mobility. As smaller coalition partners do in New Zealand, the Lib Dems could have been awarded ministers outside cabinet, free to criticise the government over decisions they had no say over.

The upshot of these failures came on Thursday. In aggressively briefing against the Conservatives, the Lib Dems had disowned their own role in government – making it easier for Lib Dem-Tory swing voters to vote blue. For a party who had just been in government for the first time since World War Two, the Lib Dems had surprisingly little positive to say about the experience.

Still no one expected election night to be so dire for the party. The Lib Dems now have just eight seats left – the lowest number at a general election since 1970, when the old Liberal Party won a mere six. The underlying belief that sustained the Lib Dems – that at least 25 assiduous incumbents could cling on by fighting by-elections divorced from the national campaign – proved delusional.

The foundations for this belief came in the Eastleigh by-election in February 2013, when the Lib Dems survived the Chris Huhne saga and terrible national opinion polls to hold onto the seat. But it now looks like a pyrrhic victory: defeat would have meant the end of Clegg’s time as party leader and forced an urgent rethink of the party’s strategy. The Lib Dems were willfully ignorant of the real lesson of Eastleigh: that despite pouring all national resources into the seat, they had still suffered a 14% fall in votes and only clung on because of Ukip splitting the vote. Not so this week: as Ukip fell back, Mike Thornton was thumped by 9,000 votes.  

Reports of the death of uniform swing have been exaggerated. No matter how popular, incumbent Lib Dems have not been immune to the wider campaign, and the Conservatives framing of the election as a choice between Cameron and a Miliband-Sturgeon coalition.

Many were confused why David Cameron spent so long campaigning here in the final days of the campaign. Well now we know: he said he needed to “destroy” the Lib Dems there to win a majority. How he did: 27 of the Tories’ 35 gains were at the Lib Dems’ expense. The 14 Lib Dems seats from Cheltenham to St Ives have become none.

“People were saying they wanted clarity, a government not beholden to the SNP. That message chimed with people right at the end of the campaign,” Gavin Grant, chair of the party’s western counties region, told the Guardian. “The trend among switch voters – those deciding between ourselves and the Conservatives – was away from us. There was a desire for certainty.” The warning signs should have been there five years ago: despite Cleggmania and all those extra votes, the Lib Dems actually lost a net five seats in 2010 - including a net nine to the Conservatives.

In five years time, the Lib Dems might be in a position to reclaim some of these lost seats. One way or another, scaremongering about the SNP’s impact will not resonate in the same way. The imminent cuts under a Conservative minority government might make many of those who switched from the Lib Dems to the Tories – or who abandoned the Lib Dems for the Greens or Labour – reassess the Lib Dems’ role in government. Given Labour’s appealing brand in swathes of England’s south and west, the Lib Dems are well-poised to take up the mantle of opposition to the Conservatives in these areas, especially if there are by-elections in seats which the Lib Dems lost in 2015.

But it is also possible that the worst has only just begun for the Lib Dems. In areas like Bristol West and Norwich South, the Green Party shows signs of attracting the young, socially and environmentally conscious voters for whom the Lib Dems were once a natural home. The boundary changes that the Lib Dems delayed once will come in 2018, reducing the number of seats from 650 to 600 – Tim Farron is one of the MPs who could be worst affected. Both Labour and the Conservatives might now try to entice the rump of remaining Lib Dems to defect. A split in what remains of the party, as occurred in the 1930s, is also possible.

For now the remaining Lib Dems – more than a black cab’s worth, but only just – have learned a painful truth. The electorate wants more than a party whose entire raison d’etre lies in splitting the difference between the Conservatives and Labour. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.