The Lib Dems conference is usually the dullest of affairs, but not this year. As they gather this weekend they do so with discontent, defections and a tumbling poll performance to heat their seats.
The latest poll puts the Lib Dems on 15% down from 23% at the election and leader Nick Clegg’s praises being sung by the Spectator – “Clegg is more impressive by the week” says its editor. Not sentiments shared on the community site Mumnsnet last night where the Lib Dem leader was given a bit of a kicking. At the election it had been a different story – he had double the support of David Cameron or Gordon Brown.
At a local level the Lib Dem defections continue. The latest is Lib Dem Cllr for Shirley West, Simon Slater, who switched to Labour saying Clegg “has betrayed everything he said he believed in and everyone who voted for him”. There is bound to be more talk of betrayal this weekend.
All of this, however, is only the start of Clegg’s trouble says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian today. Sooner or later Lib Dem backbenchers are going to run for opposition cover while, but he argues for those who took jobs in the coalition they opted for “short-term glory but a longer-term suicide note”. The question, is Jenkins asks, when will the run for cover start?
The party’s support at the polls has collapsed from 23% to 15% since the election, and can only go further down. This is the classic centre-party squeeze. Extremist coalition partners have no trouble: they negotiate terms, stand aloof and await delivery. Centrist ones must support a general programme which they can only accept or reject table d’hôte. They either back the government of the day, or they attack it. There are no ifs and buts. This is the politics of power, not a thinktank conundrum.
Already this weekend, Lib Dem party workers are asking what they are supposed to say to voters. A Westminster spin doctor might cobble together a line on how far Clegg has “nudged” the coalition on taxation or welfare or a (probably lost) referendum on voting reform. But Clegg’s call to arms in yesterday’s Times was pure Toryism. There was no room for manoeuvre. To the doorstep question, “Is the Liberal Democrat party for or against the coalition and its cuts?” there can be only one answer. It is for. In which case why are Liberal Democrats still intending to stand against Tories and bring the house down?