James Forsyth James Forsyth

Lib Dem conference: The Lib Dems hope to keep their identity crisis hidden

This Liberal Democrat conference is demonstrating that the last election result was actually a relatively simple one for the Liberal Democrats. The parliamentary arithmetic meant that the party only had to decide whether it wanted to be in government or not. No one in the party could accuse those who backed the idea of being ‘closet Tories’ because there was no Labour option.

Most Liberal Democrats, and particularly older ones, instinctively — and rather unthinkingly — rebel at the suggestion that they might actually want to govern with the Tories. Paddy Ashdown’s rage at The Observer on Sunday morning was over the fact that he felt the headline ‘Paddy Ashdown says Liberal Democrats could work again with the Tories’ implied that was what he wanted to do. It was anger at this suggestion that led to him telling Andrew Neil that the Liberal Democrats are a ‘left-wing party’; he normally says they are a party of the ‘centre-left’.

If the next election produces a hung parliament in which both coalitions were possible, it will be exquisite agony for the Liberal Democrats. It will force them, as I say in the magazine this week, to show which party they favour and, therefore, what kind of party they are.

I suspect that more of them than would care to admit it would favour another go with the Tories. There is a sense among those Liberal Democrats in government that the top of the Tory party gets coalition while the Labour leadership doesn’t. There is also a sense that a Miliband-led coalition wouldn’t be a great success, would endanger their Tory-facing seats and risk paving the way for a return to Tory majority politics.

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