After Nick Clegg’s europhile outburst yesterday, it was left to Danny Alexander to repair the damage this morning. Appearing on the Today programme, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury dodged the question of what the Lib Dems would have done differently by simply insisting that the “circumstances would be different”. Sounding a conciliatory note, he acknowledged that David Cameron had a “very difficult hand to play” faced with “real intransigence” from France and Germany and a clear need to bring “something back” for the House of Commons.
Confronted by the greatest threat to the government’s unity since the AV referendum, Alexander attempted to restate the initial rationale for the coalition : to clean up “the mess” left by Labour and secure economic stability. But the failure of Osborne’s plan means that he sounded less convincing than ever. The deficit will still be £79bn (4.5 per cent of GDP) in 2014-15.
The Lib Dems’ record in government is not a happy one. Tuition fees have been tripled, electoral reform has been banished for a generation and Britain has been marginalised in Europe. The question John Humphrys put to Alexander is the one many voters will be asking: what is the point of the Lib Dems “apart from keeping the Conservatives in power?” Alexander insisted that there were an “enormous amount of Lib Dem policies and ideas being delivered” but he could point only to the pupil premium (a policy also favoured by the Conservatives) and the increase in the personal allowance. But following the events of last week, these gains look more meagre than ever. As things stand, talk of the coalition breaking up is confined to mavericks such as Jenny Tonge but others may yet join her.
Clegg’s long-term strategy remains clear: to present the Lib Dems as more socially progressive than the Tories but more fiscally responsible than Labour. But increasingly few voters are attracted by this pitch. For now, the slow march to electoral oblivion continues.