Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
2 April 2015

The Liberal Democrats don’t realise how much trouble they’re in – but they will soon

The Liberal Democrats a bad joke - and they're the only ones who don't get it.

By ross McCafferty

As the election campaign starts to get into full swing, it’s important to remember there are always some moments of light relief that are guaranteed to make our elected representatives look a bit silly. Firstly, a battle bus, or similar vehicular campaigning device, will get stuck, given a ticket, or crash. Secondly, a politician will get photographed next to a seemingly indicative public sign (think ‘changed priorities,’ ‘caution’ and the like). Finally, a leader will attempt to look relaxed at a campaign visit so ridiculous, you genuinely fear for the safety of the spin doctor who suggested it.

It says a lot about the current fortunes of the Lib Dems that on Monday, the official start of the campaign, Nick Clegg managed to knock out all three in a single afternoon. First, his battle bus got stuck. Then, he found himself photographed next to a sign saying ‘danger, deep water.’ Finally, and most absurdly, the Lib Dem leader, in true Partridge form, made his first campaign stop a hedgehog sanctuary. Yes, really. The Deputy Prime Minister affected a face of stoic reverence normally reserved for a war memorial as he was told of a rescued hedgehog with ‘maggots in every orifice.’

Of course, like all slightly hapless politicians, it’s easy to feel a little sympathy for Clegg. But it is genuinely baffling to see how much he has brought the party faithful along with him. From the Conference Hall to the blog comments, there is precious little dissent among the yellow ranks as they seemingly head towards electoral oblivion. Will half of their MP’s remain? Even that number might be difficult. 

Confidence is important in politics, but so is expectation management.

“I’ve seen the polls, I’ve seen the predictions, and I tell you now we will do better,” declared Clegg in Aberdeen last week.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

If Clegg believes that, he is quite simply dim. If he doesn’t believe it, he needs to be careful about what he says to give his party faithful a boost. I can’t quite believe I’m typing this sentence, but Gordon Brown was in Glasgow this week categorizing Labour as the underdogs. Labour. The underdogs. In Glasgow. As bizarre as it seems, it’s still the political reality. Something Nick Clegg seems to consider a luxury as his campaign lurches toward defeat.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

Not keen to take advice from the Great Clunking Fist on expectation management, Nick Clegg still has been inspired by Brown’s comeback, and decided to bring back his own party grandee to launch attacks on political enemies. But what has been the sum total of Paddy Ashdown’s ill thought interventions so far? A cringey penis joke and a cack handed comparison of the SNP insurgency to the Balkans that would be funny if it wasn’t so offensive. It’s no wonder that as the now unstuck battle bus tours the country, the former leader seems to have been unceremoniously booted off.

On the night of the first televised debate this campaign, it’s important to remember that in the aftermath of the last ones in 2010 Nick Clegg was enjoying the kind of stratospheric poll ratings not seen since, well, ever. Agreeing with Nick was all the rage as the ‘new politics’ threatened to sweep all before it. Tonight It didn’t work out like that. The Lib Dems joined the coalition and their political fate since then has been a litany of broken promises, embarrassment, and enough by election lost deposits to make the Monster Raving Loony party weep.

But still they don’t change tack. Nick Clegg insists that when people listen to him, they vote for the party. The problem is, no-one is listening. In certain Lib Dem/Tory marginals in the south, it’s hard to believe that the Lib Dems brazen attempt to claim the good of the coalition whilst denouncing the bad will have any traction. Indeed a Lord Ashcroft poll of eight Lib Dem battlegrounds in the South West released yesterday has them losing half.  In London, where Labour’s organisation is improving vastly, the Lib Dems will be lucky even to do that.

In Scotland, where they have 11 MPs, the doom seems most pronounced. Nick Clegg was up North yesterday, kept away from anything that might look like a member of the general public. There, he uttered four sentences, almost all of them contradictory.

Firstly, he said that the party would hold all of their seats (after claiming he would defy polls and win his own). Then, he said Alex Salmond with his bullish approach to the SNP at this election was ’cocky and arrogant’. Nope, can’t square that circle either.

Meanwhile, Danny Alexander, arguably the fourth most senior man in the cabinet, is 9/2 third favourite to win his seat. In perspective, that’s about the same chance as lowly Crystal Palace have of beating oligarch-backed Man City this weekend. Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling has him 29 points behind in his constituency. And yet he seems absurdly confident of defending his 9,000 majority, taking time out to deliver a laughably pretend budget in the House of Commons. As with the other senior members, there’s something endearing about this blind faith, and it comes from the man at the top of the party.

Only Vince Cable, five years ago the economic sage the country rallied round, seems to have seen the iceberg, looking suitably glum on any of the TV he is outlined to do. But that is a rarity, by and large, the fleet-flooted finance whizz has been sidelined. Should any Chancellor’s debate happen, Nick Clegg has decreed that the doomed Alexander will face off with Messrs Osborne and Balls in a debate on the ins and outs of macroeconomic.  How the mighty have fallen, Vince Cable will watch from home whilst the already jaded British public are treated to the bizarre spectacle of Danny Alexander having an argument on TV with his line manager. Presumably he will have the good grace to leave the Yellow Box at home.

But to do an Alex Salmond, let’s think back to the Scottish referendum. Blind faith was a huge factor in the build up tot the vote. Many members of the Yes movement, right up to the First Minister Alex Salmond, were convinced they were going to defy the polls and win.  It became de rigueur to (mis)quote Ghandi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you. Then you win.” The Lib Dems are currently somewhere between the first and second points. They have no chance of reaching the fourth. But what is most galling is that most parties won’t even bother with the third.