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13 May 2015

Do you miss the Lib Dems yet? Don’t worry, you will

Those who voted simply for more of the same are unlikely to get it, as the new Conservative-only Cabinet tacks sharply to the right. 

By Helen Lewis

Well, do you miss the Liberal Democrats yet? Amid the Grand Guignol scenes of Labour’s post-mortem, it is easy to forget that the biggest loser was a party that prides itself on its resilience – one that its probable next leader, Tim Farron, described as “like cockroaches after a nuclear war, just a bit less smelly”.

Unfortunately, most of those cockroaches are now crunchy innards stuck to the bottom of David Cameron’s shoe. The party’s grim acceptance of the downsides of coalition was a marvel for five long years – their back benches were far less querulous than those of the Tories throughout the parliament – but in hindsight it looks positively suicidal. A grumpier party might have made Nick Clegg think twice about his tuition fees U-turn (as it was, 21 Lib Dems voted against the bill, including Farron, Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell, but not the leadership contender Norman Lamb, who was a minister and so part of the “payroll vote”).

The Lib Dems might also have made their excuses and left the coalition far in advance of polling day. Midway through the parliament, the conventional wisdom was that Nick Clegg would be allowed to stay on long enough to soak up all the toxicity of their association with the Conservatives, before being jettisoned so that the party could fight the election with a minty-fresh new leader.

As it was, the Lib Dems were often punished for going into coalition (which they expected) by voters defecting to their coalition partner (which they did not). Ed Davey, David Laws and Vince Cable all lost their seats to Conservatives and the south-west is now a sea of blue, with Ben Bradshaw’s Labour seat of Exeter floating in the middle. Some of the swings were almost Scotland-like in their profundity: Yeovil voters turned David Laws’s 13,000 majority into a 5,000 lead for the Tories.

The scale of the defeat shocked even party grandees, who are veterans of many previous electoral disappointments. (Paddy Ashdown likes to joke that he has endured eras when support for the party was so low in opinion polls that it was just an asterisk.) Most accept that Scotland is lost for a generation, battered by a nationalist hurricane; but the real puzzle is England. Why, when so many English voters were obviously not anti-Tory, were they anti-Lib Dem?

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Part of the answer might be that voters wanted continuity. Afraid of a weak Labour government being dominated by the SNP, they picked the Conservatives. Senior Lib Dems also blame the polls, which erroneously predicted a knife-edge fight between the two main parties. Here, they may have a point. Did centrist voters prioritise getting a Tory prime minister back in Downing Street over tempering his most right-wing excesses with an injection of yellow?

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If so, David Cameron’s honeymoon period may be short-lived; those who voted simply for more of the same are unlikely to get it. And, as I’ve written before, anyone my age only remembers a Tory majority administration as a clapped-out old thing, all toe-sucking and children being force-fed beefburgers. That will not be the case now, as Cameron has filled the cabinet vacancies provided by the removal of Lib Dems with red-blooded right-wingers.

With Michael Gove at the Ministry of Justice, the repeal of the Human Rights Act will be cast as a grand ideological battle, with peacenik lawyers as the new “Blob” to be vanquished. His deputy, Dominic Raab, thinks that feminists are “bigots” and has previously threatened to burn his briefs over the oppression of men, so I wish the Equality Act the best of British luck (the equality brief, always a low Tory priority, is held by Caroline Dinenage, who voted against gay marriage). The new employment minister, Priti Patel, has said capital punishment is an effective deterrent. The Department for International Development has been punished with Grant Shapps.

So, even as the Liberal Democrats absorb the scale of their losses, they predict that voters will discover a full-bore Tory majority is very different from a disgruntled right held in check by a coalition partner. It’s notable that the Financial Times, the Independent and the Economist backed the coalition rather than the Conservatives. As the Economist warned: “The Tories’ Europhobia, which we regretted last time, could now do grave damage.” One party grandee cautioned that Cameron’s renegotiation will never satisfy his Eurosceptic backbenchers: “Whatever piece of paper he brings back, 60 of them will not support it. And he has a majority of 12.”

There are many other items on the agenda that the Lib Dems would have blocked: draconian anti-terror powers, hacking lumps out of the BBC, reviving the “snooper’s charter” and the £12bn of benefit cuts. Although the Tories now claim they knew that they could win a majority months ago, they acted in the last days of the campaign as if they could make rash promises and blame their demise on a coalition. Balancing the books without raising income tax, VAT or National Insurance – a strategy Cameron promised to enshrine in law – will require savage cuts. Right-wingers will want defence protected; pensions are triple-locked and therefore untouchable. After welfare is pared to the bone, Nicky Morgan faces a fight to protect the education budget, which is not ring-fenced like the NHS.

The Lib Dems are now tending to the fallen, with defeated candidates getting calls from the top brass. They plan to rebuild, as they have before, from the local level and draw hope from the way in which 10,000 masochists have joined the party since the election. But they are doubly sad, mourning both their annihilation and what that means for Britain. As one says: “There’s no satisfaction in watching the working poor being penalised to prove us right.”