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17 September 2018

The Lib Dems won’t enter a coalition. But how long can the party survive without one?

The party has ruled out the opportunity to hold ministerial office and pass multiple pieces of legislation.

By Stephen Bush

It’s the Liberal Democrat conference, though you could be forgiven for forgetting that based on this morning’s papers.

The party’s lack of mojo as far as headlines go is a recurrent cause of anxiety among the party’s elite, but the reality is that they are caught in a negative spiral: they don’t get much coverage because they have just 12 MPs, and while they get so little coverage, their chances of adding to that 12 are going to remain pretty slim.

But I can’t help feeling that one of the reasons why ruling out forming another coalition after the next election is a bad move is that it makes covering the party seem like even more of an indulgence than it does anyhow.

The self-denying ordinance has been party policy since the last election, when Tim Farron declared he would go into a coalition with neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn. (One of the fun quirks of the Liberal Democrats’ ultra-democratic constitution is that the right not to do something is really the only thing that the party’s leader can exercise without having to get it through its various committees first.) But yesterday was our first opportunity to see what the rank-and-file made of it: and the reaction was a round of applause.

Which is a little odd when you think about it. Think about it: this is a party ruling out the opportunity to hold ministerial office, to pass multiple pieces of legislation and not just the odd private member’s bill here and there, and their activists think this is a good thing. Yes, the DUP have influence outside the trappings of coalition – the influence of being able to veto things and the delivery of extra cash to their own constituencies.

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You don’t have to think everything the Liberal Democrats did in coalition was great, or even that they made the best fist of the hand dealt to them by the parliamentary arithmetic in 2010, to know that the amount you can change – without ever having to pass a single bill – with the powers of ministerial office significantly outweigh what you can do as an awkward party outside of a coalition. (Not least because you can still do all the things you can do as an awkward party outside of a coalition plus all the coalition-only benefits.)

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It also raises the question of why exactly the party thinks we should be here in Brighton covering them or indeed why anyone should vote for them. What’s the point of campaigning for proportional representation and pitching yourself as a moderating influence on the “extremes” of the two other parties if, come the crunch, you won’t go into the coalitions that guarantees PR and you’ll decline the opportunity to moderate either those extremes by taking a role in the executive?

I’m not saying there isn’t a sustainable future for the Liberal Democrats as a party that says no to everything other than more funding for rural broadband – I’m just at a loss as to why that future is a remotely desirable one, though.