If Nick Clegg is going down, he’s going down fighting at least.
The Liberal Democrat leader was in a punchy mood, defending the decision to go into coalition, shouting about his achievements and ready for another five years in office. With all the talk of a middle way between the cruel Tories and the feckless Labour party, it all felt a bit like a tribute act for an early-era Tony Blair.
The manifesto, however, echoes Blair’s later days; a primarily defensive document, heavy on words like “continue” and “review”. The slogan “a record of delivery…a promise of more” provided the golden thread throughout the text. Most of the 150 pages are taken up with a defence of what the party has done over the last five years, rather than a vision for the next half-decade.
And small wonder; as Sal Brinton, the party’s president, said at the beginning, the Liberal Democrat’s time in government has been “somewhat testing”. The party’s programme for power is a reflection of those testing times.
Most of the pledges are coalition-ready; for all Brinton’s suggestion that the manifesto hadn’t been cut down to avoid a repeat of the tuition fees disaster, the document reflected hours of work and much horse-trading in order to put together a platform that should be less headache-inducing than the 2010 manifesto was. There will be no painful U-Turns after the 2015 election.
A middle way appears to have been found even on airport expansion. The party will “carefully consider” the recommendations of the Davies Review into runway capacity but “remains opposed” to further airport expansion. The pledge of “no net increase to runways”, however, means that a smaller runway will be bulldozed at the same time as expansion to Heathrow or Gatwick is approved.
Other attempts to split the difference have already aged less well. The Conservatives, who have long felt on the wrong side of public opinion in their tussle with Labour over the 25-hour childcare policy, have abandoned their commitment to 12 hours of free care and are now offering 30. The Liberal promise of 20 free hours, until recently equidistant, now looks anti-family. It means that if the Liberal Democrats do make it back into office, they will find the process of governing altogether less painful, albeit at the cost of a particularly inspiring message to carry forth in the election’s final few weeks.