David Blackburn

Ditching Clegg won’t help the Libs

Ditching Clegg won't help the Libs
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Despite the brave smiles, the senior Lib Dems are wearing long faces. Matthew Parris considers (£) the collapse of the Conservative vote in Oldham East and Saddleworth as a disaster for the Lib Dems, their own vote sustained by an influx of Tory voters. The Tories may not recover that support, but that does not ease the Liberal Democrats’ dilemma. Parris observes:

‘Privately Nick Clegg will have drawn from this the only sane conclusion, but it is one that I’ve found the Liberal Democrats strikingly reluctant to discuss. It is that in the seats where his party stands a chance next time, it must either re-engage the sympathies of its former supporters who are defecting to Labour, or it must throw itself upon the mercies of Tory sympathisers.’

As James and Nick Cohen write in this week’s magazine, Westminster does not lend itself to coalition. Clegg is determined to prove that coalition is no conceit, that his party is a vibrant influence within government. Vibrancy will not suffice; Clegg must demonstrate that his party is distinct from Cameron’s and realistically that cannot happen if the coalition is to survive – and if the Liberal Democrats bring it down in self-defence, they will fall with it as the ultimate opportunists. Besides, the Liberal Democrats would find no succour in tacking to the left: the social democrats among the clan are unlikely to forgive the initial betrayal.

There is a tendency to describe the delicate electoral arithmetic as ‘Nick Clegg’s conundrum’, and therefore if Clegg were removed the Liberal Democrats could renew. Clegg may be immolated and the coalition with him, but the party was complicit in his ‘treachery’, its name ascribed to the coalition agreement. The contraction is on and if the party is to remain whole it can only move in one direction. Parris concludes that the Liberal Democrats are the Tories’ dependent child, and so it would seem. But it would be self-defeating for them to admit as much. David Laws is master-minding the Liberal Democrats’ detachment policy; lucky he’s so clever.