By this stage of the parliament many Lib Dems expected their party to be recovering. As part of the government, the hope was that they would benefit from the return of economic growth and the significant fall in unemployment. Yet far from gaining ground, the Lib Dems are losing it.
For a second consecutive day, YouGov has them in fifth place, behind the Greens, on just 7 per cent. Having initially collapsed to 10-12 per cent as a result of entering government with the Tories (as Tony Blair once observed, you can’t run to the left of New Labour for three elections and not pay a price for joining forces with a party to the right), their ratings have since tumbled further to 6-8 per cent. After aspiring to become the “second party” of British politics in 2010, the Lib Dems are now almost certain to finish fourth in next year’s election, behind Ukip. Yet in the circumstances, they remain united, stoical and resolute. The question many in Westminster are asking is “How?”
In part, the absence of panic reflects simple resignation. With only five months remaining until the election, there is little the Lib Dems can now do or say to alter their position. The party flirted with regicide in June after finishing fifth in the European elections but resolved to stick with Nick Clegg for fear of something worse. The strategy – splitting the difference between the Tories and Labour – and the policies have been set. All the troops can do now is go over the top, aware that a significant number won’t make it back.
In private, the Lib Dems are resigned to the loss of most of their Labour-facing seats, such as Burnley, Manchester Withington, Redcar, Brent Central, Bradford East and Norwich South. But – and here lies the key explanation for their placidity – they remain hopeful of holding the majority of the far greater number of Conservative-facing seats (which account for 37 of their 56). Lord Ashcroft’s most recent marginals poll found them on course to retain nine of the 11 surveyed. Their national brand might be hideously tarnished but Lib Dem incumbents can still trade on their local reputations. As a result, the party expects to return at least 30 MPs: enough to conceivably hold the balance of power in another hung parliament (which looks likelier than at any point since 2010) and to re-enter government.
But the bleakness of the situation was summed up by one source, who, noting Clegg’s penchant for appointing MPs as privy councillors, told me: “It’s like the bunker in Downfall with the Führer pinning medals on supporters.”