What if the Liberal Democrats exit the Coalition early?Lib Dem what if

The Coalition agreement sets the arrangement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats for the duration of the current Parliament.  But we are in uncharted territory.  Britain has rarely had peacetime coalitions and even those tended to end with some acrimony.  Let us consider whether the realpolitik of today’s political landscape will bring an early end to the coalition.

A Gloomy Gathering in Glasgow?

We are in late September 2014.  The Scottish referendum is over and the Union has survived intact.  David Cameron is enjoying a poll bounce from the outcome and the gap between the Conservatives and Labour has closed.  Both are improving a bit in the polls, with Mr Miliband garnering praise following another rousing conference performance.  However, whilst the big two are fighting it out with around 35% of the vote for each, Nick Clegg’s party lacks political oxygen and remains stuck on a gravity-confirming 6% in the polls.

The remaining faithful are about to gather in Glasgow for their conference.  The delegates will include hundreds of former Lib Dem councillors, all defeated in their wards over the last two years.  A handful of the party’s decimated ex-MEPs are there too.  Wary of the fate that met these former MEPs, the crowd also includes 20 Lib Dem MPs, who are anticipating this to be their last conference as standing members of parliament.

The mood threatens to be very gloomy indeed. Above the grassroots supporters, the Party’s ministers are also unhappy;  they are being frozen out in their departments as Tory Secretaries of State conceal from them more and more.

Ahead of the conference, and littered throughout the fringe agenda, there’s talk of the Party’s future after the expected trouncing next May, and the departure of Nick Clegg from the leadership.

While Mr Clegg ponders his conference speech for the afternoon of October 8, he can’t stop his mind drifting towards his resignation speech for May 6th.

Is there any way of escaping the menacing resonance of this fatalistic drumbeat as the weeks count down to the general election?  Any way of flooring his critics, seizing the initiative, and grasping one last chance to haul the Lib Dems back into contention in May 2015?

He concludes that the only way to inject a burst of adrenaline and hope into his ailing party is by announcing that his party will leave the Coalition now.

Putney Ponderings

Why do that?  Why risk the accusation of another about-turn?  Why risk provoking another leadership challenge?  Maybe because all the risks involved in not doing this are far greater: A smash defeat and a rather ignominious end to his leadership.

The political gamble might just come off.

The separation is amicable, not acrimonious.  Mr Clegg assures Mr Cameron that his MPs will support all the Queens Speech measures as they proceed through Parliament, and he can count on Lib Dem support in any motion of confidence.  They are not in the business of bringing down a government in which they served.

Mr Clegg will hail the Coalition a success.  He repeats, it has brought down the deficit, lowered unemployment, and unleashed decent growth.  Personal taxes are down.  Forming it and sustaining it was the right thing to do – in 2010.  But Mr Clegg suspects that there would not be a Coalition MkII with Mr Cameron if he again fails to secure an overall majority.  Troops behind both generals would revolt at the prospect.  So why prolong what cannot be sustained much longer anyway, while it inhibits your chance to command attention from the voters?

Leaving is not to denounce the coalition and its accomplishments; it is to gain the space and time in which to define a distinctive Liberal Democrat agenda and in which to challenge the two established parties, as it did in 2010.  It will invigorate – and possibly delight – activists, who will forget any plotting for a leadership challenge, and seize this new opportunity to breathe fresh political air.

Mr Clegg can present a new Liberal Democrat vision – built around proposals for progressive change in Europe, more tax cuts for the low paid, including an alignment of National Insurance and Income tax thresholds, financed by a mansion tax; and constitutional reform including a smaller Commons and an indirectly elected Senate, giving a stronger voice to the English regions.

The party now has six months for its conversation with the voters. Six liberating months for liberals.   It has been bold and has turned away from the trappings of power to face people awaiting something different.  The race is on to be the powerful third force in British politics – a progressive, inclusive liberalism set against UKIP’s appeal of isolationism and reaction. Hope is unleashed in Glasgow.

Mr Cameron loses his cover

Mr Clegg believes this unexpected manoeuvre might yield another electoral bonus,  if he’s lucky.  Released of the need to temper their public views for the sake of the coalition, a number of right wing, euro-sceptic Conservatives rejoice in the divorce, and pile the pressure on Cameron to place the Tory’s appeal firmly on the right – more spending cuts, more reductions in welfare, tax cuts, and a clear nod towards EU exit. ‘That’s the way to see off UKIP – and now we are free to do it.’

Mr Cameron struggles to rein them in.  Voters see a Conservative party drifting to the right.  UKIP voters slowly come back into the fold.  But as they do so, even more centrist conservatives head for the exit door – going back to Labour, and back to the Liberal Democrats.  Some of the southern seats that looked lost may be saved after all.

And Mr Miliband’s prospects brighten.  He says, “The Tories don’t get it”.  Mr Clegg says, “See, we were a restraining influence, after all’.  Either way, the chemistry is better and if the voters withhold a majority from Labour, the way is now clear to do a deal if one is attainable.  The policies align, even if the personalities remain wary of each other.

The car’s here

Mr Clegg muses as his car begins its long journey from Putney to Glasgow.  He reads over the draft conference speech once again, “What if this doesn’t work?  I’m finished.  Yes, but if I don’t try it I’m probably finished anyway.  Better a bang than a whimper.”


Written by James Plaskitt, former Labour MP for Warwick and Leamington.