From the oustside, it might appear as if the Lib Dems have few reasons for optimism. Since entering government, the party has lost a third of its members, 1,500 of its councillors, all but one of its MEPs, nine by-election deposits (most recently in Newark) and as much as two-thirds of its previous opinion poll support. The Tories, by contrast, have retained almost all of their 2010 vote share and have consistently exceeded expectations in local elections. As Angela Merkel told David Cameron when he asked her what was it like to lead a coalition government shortly before the 2010 general election: “The little party always gets smashed!”
But with both the Tories and Labour doubtful of winning a majority in 2015 (see Marcus Roberts’s piece in tomorrow’s NS for more on this), the Lib Dems console themselves with the thought that they will once again act as kingmakers in a “balanced parliament”. Some are even more sanguine. In my politics column tomorrow, I reveal that Danny Alexander told a recent parliamentary party away day in Wyboston, Bedfordshire, that the Lib Dems could be the largest party in British politics by 2025. “We were all rolling our eyes, even Clegg’s spads,” one of those present told me. “He’d really been drinking the Kool-Aid”. David Steel’s 1981 exhortation to Liberal activists to “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government” looks modest by comparison.
But while Alexander’s ambitions might seem unrealistic for a party that could struggle to win more votes than Ukip in 2015 (and we await his ten-year plan with interest), what can the Lib Dems do to avoid being continually “smashed”? That’s the question I try to answer in my column.