On Monday 6 September, a delegation of senior MPs and peers filed into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on King Charles Street. Hosting the meeting was the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who had taken time out from his schedule to discuss the coalition government’s foreign policy, despite days of rampant speculation about his private life and political judgement. Hague was persuasive. “He was very impressive and in absolute control of his brief,” says a peer who was there. What was notable about the occasion was that all the parliamentarians present were Liberal Democrats.
Across Whitehall, similar meetings are being held at which Lib Dem backbenchers are being hugged close by Conservative ministers – especially the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who has been impressing sceptics with his plans for “free schools”, often in one-on-one meetings. The co-chairs of various Lib Dem policy teams have been invited to attend the regular “forward looks” that Tory cabinet ministers hold with departmental colleagues.
These charm offensives reflect the Tory high command’s keenness to make the coalition gel for the lifetime of this parliament and, in the words of one senior Lib Dem to whom we spoke, David Cameron’s desire to use the smaller party “as a counterweight to the Tory right”.
Some coalition outriders want it to go further. Nick Boles, the “modernising” Tory MP for Grantham and Stamford who is a close friend and ally of the Prime Minister, went public on 13 September with a proposal that would bind the two parties in an electoral pact by the end of the year. Boles, a former member of Cameron’s “implementation unit” before the general election, said that the coalition partners should give each other a free run in the seats they hold.
Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem deputy leader, was quick to reject the idea, saying that his party would “take on all comers” at the next election, including the Conservatives. But, for some senior Lib Dems, the proposal may seem attractive in the long run, as it would secure the Lib Dems’ new-found role as a credible, centrist party of government.
Others on the dormant left of the party, however, see it as a “trap” – a plan to destroy the Lib Dems as an independent political force and subsume them into the Cameron-led Conservative Party. “I would oppose such a move with every fibre of my body,” says David Hall-Matthews, a former parliamentary candidate and chair of the influential centre-left pressure group the Social Liberal Forum, founded by Lib Dem members and campaigners.
According to a recent ComRes poll, the party has lost the support of almost four in ten of the people who voted for it on 6 May, with more than one in five people who backed the Lib Dems at the general election telling pollsters that they would now vote Labour. Overall, the Lib Dems’ poll rating has shrunk to 12 per cent, down from 23 per cent at the election.
Meanwhile, even among Lib Dem activists, dissatisfaction is on the rise. A recent survey of nearly 600 party members showed that net support for the coalition fell to 45 per cent in August from 57 per cent in July.
Between 18 and 22 September, the Lib Dems are gathering in Liverpool for the most eagerly awaited conference in the party’s 22-year history. More than 7,000 delegates are travelling to the event – far eclipsing the usual attendance of 6,000; the number of journalists attending has leapt by 500 to 1,500. It is the “biggest Lib Dem conference ever”, in the words of the Liberal Democrat Voice blog.
As MPs, members and activists gather in Liverpool, there is no sign yet of serious unrest. We are four months in to the coalition and not a single MP wants to break with the Tories. Take Bob Russell, Lib Dem MP for Colchester and a well-known backbench rebel. On 13 September, he “dragged”, in his own words, the Chancellor, George Osborne, to the Commons to explain his latest round of benefit cuts, accusing him of being “unethical” and “immature”. But Russell now tells us: “The coalition will last the full five years. Of course it will.”
Yet, beneath the surface, there is growing uncertainty about the party’s electoral future and about what one MP describes as “an identity crisis”.
“The mood is a mixture of excitement and growing anxiety,” agrees Hall-Matthews. “I wouldn’t expect there to be outright hostility towards theleadership but people will be coming to the conference with questions about how we retain our distinctiveness as a party while working in the coalition.”
Another senior Liberal Democrat on the left of the party says he is “very uncomfortable with the rhetoric from the party leadership. Nick Clegg seems to think that this is a coalition built on ideological coherence, rather than just two parties working together.” He adds: “I do believe in consensus politics, but I don’t want to pretend there is ideological coherence with the Tories and it doesn’t electorally help us to pretend it does.”
Perhaps it is not a pretence. “You have no idea of the extent of the behind-the-scenes bonding that has gone on between Nick and Cameron, as well as Nick and other Tories like Osborne,” says a well-connected Lib Dem frontbencher. “They’ve all been slagging off Labour together like there’s no tomorrow.”
It’s a long way from Charles Kennedy’s leadership of the party, when the Lib Dems were much closer to Labour. Though a figurehead for the party’s left, Kennedy himself is refusing to stoke any revolts. He has denied claims that he would consider defecting to Labour, despite making it clear that he opposed his party’s alliance with the Tories. But friends of Kennedy say that he does see a future role for himself in the party, if not as leader for a second time, then, at least, in a very senior role on the Lib Dem front bench.
“When Charles went, our support haemorrhaged,” says a leading Lib Dem peer. “It took us years of careful work to get that back. Now we’ve thrown it all away again. We may have to call on Charles again one day.”
Intriguingly, similar sentiments were expressed at a private 80th birthday party for Shirley Williams on 8 September at the Savile Club in London. The gathering served as a reunion of the old Social Democratic Party (SDP). Bill Rodgers, who, along with Williams, was one of the original Gang of Four that broke from Labour to create the SDP, had planned the party. Tom McNally, a minister in the Department of Justice, was the sole representative from the coalition. No cabinet ministers were present, least of all the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg.
At the party, Kennedy gave a characteristically witty speech about Williams before leaving to vote in the Commons. After he left, Williams paid fulsome tribute to the popular former leader and argued that he still had a “big future role” to play in the party. “It was very striking how effusive Shirley was about Charles – and not just about his past record but the role she thought he might play in the coming months,” said one of the guests.
A rising star to look out for at the party’s conference is the backbencher Tim Farron. The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale lost out to Simon Hughes for the post of deputy leader but is preparing to challenge for another influential job: that of party president. Lib Dem insiders tell us Farron is the clear favourite – which might worry Clegg: he has been one of the most vocal Lib Dem critics of the coalition, condemning the Conservatives as possessing a “toxic brand” that is being given “cover” by the Lib Dems. He is also supporting a contentious conference motion that calls on Lib Dem ministers to look into the “viability and practicalities of increasing taxation on wealth – including land values”.
But the most controversial issue at the conference and beyond is likely to be university tuition fees. Before the election, 55 out of the 57 Lib Dem MPs signed a pledge to vote against any increase in fees. In July, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, floated the idea of instituting a graduate tax in a speech at South Bank University in London. But the review into higher-education funding, chaired by the former BP chief executive Lord (John) Browne and scheduled to publish its findings on 11 October, is expected to reject a graduate tax and instead propose a rise in fees to around £7,000.
Despite the terse statement in the coalition agreement that “arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote” on proposals from Browne with which they disagree, numerous backbenchers – including the former leader Menzies Campbell – have let it be known that they plan to rebel if the party performs a U-turn in government on fees. Insiders suggest the number could easily be a majority of the parliamentary party. “If Browne recommends lifting or raising the cap on fees, I expect there’ll be blood on the carpet,” says a senior party source.
Meanwhile, MPs and activists alike are beginning to ask searching questions of the party leadership. On what platform, for example, will the Liberal Democrats fight the next election? Hughes has said they will fight “in every seat”, but on what basis will they stand against their Conservative allies? Come 2015, will Clegg be able to challenge or confront Cameron in the television debates as he did so forcefully in spring this year?
When we asked a senior Lib Dem frontbencher whether Clegg could “attack” Cameron at the next election, he replied: “Of course not. How could he?”
So, can Clegg carry his anxious party with him through to 2015? On Monday in Liverpool, he may be greeted as a hero by the faithful, still euphoric over the Lib Dems’ entry into government, but the real reckoning will come in 2011. Not only will the effect of the coalition’s public spending cuts have set in, but the party is preparing for losses at the local elections in May. To compound matters, party members are also having to come to terms with the likelihood that they will lose the “glittering prize” from a referendum on electoral reform.
“I hate this government,” a senior Lib Dem peer was overheard to remark recently while walking out of the House of Lords chamber. For now, however, such mutterings are kept quiet. Next year could be very different.