There are people both inside and outside of the Liberal Democrats for whom the answer to the above question is obvious. Of course it was, you fool. Were you watching last Thursday? However, I disagree. I don’t think it was a mistake for the Lib Dems to have gone into coalition with the Tories and I’ll spend the rest of this article explaining why that is.
If you go back to the start of the 2010 election short campaign, the Lib Dems were polling in the late teens. Then came the first TV debate after which they started pulling in numbers in the late-20s, early-30s. Hopes were high within the party. Talk of 100 plus seats or even being the official opposition was in the air. But then polling day came and the party ended up losing seats, going from 62 to 57.
At the time, we figured that Cleggmania had simply had no lasting effect. But with the benefit of hindsight and also being able to see how the 2015 election result played out, I no longer think this was the case. I think the Cleggmania thing essentially saved the Lib Dems a whole bunch of seats that might have otherwise gone. In other words, the Lib Dems were about to get squeezed in a “change” election, and then something weird in the form of the debate triumph came along and changed the narrative enough to hang onto to some seats the party might otherwise have lost. The constituencies in the southwest the Lib Dems hung onto in 2010, lost this time round, are a great example.
So essentially what I’m saying is that the course the Lib Dems were on should have run out of steam at the 2010 election. Part of the leap of 1997 was down to the Conservative collapse, and now that the Tories were on the rise again, surely most of the Lib Dem seats would be under real threat? But again, something gave the Lib Dems enough of a boost to hang on to many more seats than would have otherwise been expected, psephologically speaking.
This then placed the Liberal Democrats in a perilous position, one from which there were no particularly great choices. One was to try and form a government with Labour. This would not have had a majority and wouldn’t have lasted. The election held six months, a year later, would have seen Labour and the Lib Dems crushed in a manner similar to that we’ve just witnessed. The Tories would definitely have got those seats in the southwest; I think the Lib Dems would have ended up in the single figures as is the case today.
The second choice was to do nothing at all – prop no one up, no deals, no confidence and supply. Just sit back and watch the dust settle. This would have resulted in a Tory minority trying to pass a Queen’s Speech, failing, and then winning the subsequent election. This probably would have been the least bad option for the Lib Dems electorally, but the southwest still would have gone and I think the party would have been left with somewhere between 15 and 20 MPs.
The last choice was the Tory coalition. Which essentially bought the party five years. Five years to hope that the record in government could change people’s minds. But it didn’t. So we ended up where we probably should have in 2010.
Except at least the party has had the experience of government. And while no one wants to hear about it now, if the Lib Dems could possibly rebuild, that experience could sway some people who wouldn’t have voted otherwise to do so again. That may seem like a distant and extremely hopeful ambition. Perhaps it is. But I still don’t see how collapsing in 2010, without having had that experience in government, would have been so much better than doing the same thing in 2015 but with no way back.