In the wake of the recent Oakeshott inspired madness, an argument lays unresolved, both within the Liberal Democrats and in the wider body politic. Should the party remain in government until the end or retreat early, say six months before the election, in order to let the “differentiation strategy” breathe a little?
I’ll examine both choices with as much of an open mind as I can. Let’s start with ending the government prematurely, pros and cons. The upside of such a manoeuvre is it would allow space between the Coalition and the election, a time when people could possibly readjust their view of the party. It would make Nick arguing with Cameron in the debates and in the press less weird. It would allow some focus on the general election within the party as well.
But the cons are considerable and jump out at me. For a start, we are going to be trading on our time in government heavily during the general election campaign. Not even so much on what we’ve achieved, which will be important to try and get across, but the idea that coalition government is stable and does work. Pulling out of said government damages that narrative in a way few other things could.
But more than anything, the reason I feel not so great about the idea of ending the government early is because it is exactly what the people who most loathe the party have been agitating for years to happen. I recall having a conversation with a young intern who was very, very left wing a couple of years ago about the Coalition. She said, “Clegg needs to get out now while there’s still a chance at redemption.” I was intrigued and so I said to her, “So if the Lib Dems pulled out of government and there was an election tomorrow, you’d vote for them?” She looked at me like I’d just suggested the most ridiculous thing of all time. “HELL NO!” she said very emphatically.
What she couldn’t see is that if dissolving the government wouldn’t have made her vote Lib Dem, why would it make anyone else on the left vote Lib Dem? The idea that a legion of lefties would come flooding back to the party if we were to end the government prematurely is wilfully naïve. If it would work I would be genuinely open to the idea, but it wouldn’t. The attitude displayed by the intern is fairly ubiquitous, unfortunately. It’s like the many friends I had in the wake of the formation of the government saying to me, “I will never vote Lib Dem again!” My response, nine times out of ten was, “But you never voted for us anyway.” Then the classic rejoinder: “But I would have considered it at least!”
I’ve said this before, but I need to close by saying it again: our hands have been dipped in blood and there’s no way back to the solitude of eternal third party opposition. Either no party will get a majority and we’ll be back in the mix, or that won’t happen and we’ll see where we go as a party from there. But ending the project we embarked on four years ago before time isn’t the answer. If the Tories want to end it, fine, that could be spun in our favour. But if we pull out, we will just look petulant, immature, disorganised and ultimately more interested in being safe and loved in our little corner of the House, as opposed to having to figure out how to run the country – all of the crosses our enemies wish to hang us from.