Shortly before the last general election, David Cameron visited his fellow centre-right leader Angela Merkel and, in anticipation of a hung parliament, asked her what it was like to lead a coalition government. “The little party always gets smashed!” the German chancellor replied. Mrs Merkel’s words, as revealed by the former Conservative education secretary Kenneth Baker in last week’s New Statesman, have proved prescient. Like their German sister party, the Free Democrats, the Liberal Democrats have gained little beyond the privileges of power and lost much from coalition government.
Since 2010, the party’s membership has declined by a quarter and the number of Liberal Democrat councillors has fallen below 3,000, the lowest level in two decades. The Lib Dems’ current poll rating of 10 per cent would, on a uniform swing, leave them with just 18 of their present 57 seats. The party is now as unpopular in Scotland, where it has 11 MPs, as the Tories, who hold one out of the 59 Westminster seats. The decision to enter coalition with the Conservatives and the return of the Labour Party to opposition was always likely to squeeze the Lib Dems’ vote but, with a series of political blunders, their leader, Nick Clegg, has intensified the damage. The party was endorsed by the Guardian at the last election but it has since lost many of its left-leaning supporters. Its embrace of austerity economics was too ardent and many will never forgive Mr Clegg for his U-turn on university tuition fees.
Two recent events have epitomised his struggles. First, the night before it was confirmed that Britain’s economy shrank in the final quarter of 2012 (as it has done in four of the past five quarters), the Deputy Prime Minister finally conceded that the coalition cut infrastructure spending too deeply after entering office. “If I’m going to be sort of self-critical, there was this reduction in capital spending when we came into the coalition government,” he said. (That redundant “sort of” is characteristic of the imprecision of his language.) “I think we comforted ourselves at the time that it was actually no more than what Alistair Darling spelled out anyway, so in a sense everybody was predicting a significant drop-off in capital investment.”
Mr Clegg’s contention that the coalition merely chose to match the plans it had inherited from Labour is disingenuous. To date, according to figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility, the government has spent £12.8bn (8 per cent) less on capital projects than planned by Mr Darling, whose tenure as chancellor appears more impressive with each passing month of recession.
Mr Clegg’s belated self-criticism is a reminder of how careless it was for his party to embrace, so unquestioningly, the Conservatives’ economic plans during the coalition negotiations. As the Labour peer and former transport secretary Andrew Adonis reported in the NS in 2010, the Lib Dems made no attempt to stick to their campaign pledge to delay spending cuts until at least 2011. And yet Mr Clegg had declared just five days before the general election: “My eight year- old ought to be able to work this out – you shouldn’t start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing.” He went on to approve Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms, for which the government had no mandate, without, according to Shirley Williams, taking the time to read the bill.
Mr Clegg’s second act of self-correction was his decision to lead his party in voting against the Tories’ proposed boundary changes, which were deservedly defeated on 29 January by 334 votes to 292. Yet this rebellion, the first time Lib Dem ministers had voted against their Conservative counterparts since the coalition was formed, was a display of weakness, not strength. It was only after failing to come even close to winning the referendum on the Alternative Vote (the original quid pro quo for the boundary changes) and to secure reform of the House of Lords that Mr Clegg turned against the changes, for which he had previously argued. “There can be no justification for maintaining the current inequality between constituencies and voters across the country,” he told MPs in 2010. His rebellion was an act of petulance, not principle. How disappointing – and damning – that the Lib Dems, the party of constitutional reform, will leave office with Britain’s electoral system unchanged and its second chamber unelected.