Who would have thought, even a year ago, that the future of the Liberal Democrats would arouse such interest? Perhaps I was too harsh on Nick Clegg's speech to the party's conference; certainly Fraser was more impressed by it and the gang at Liberal Vision also seem pleased.
Perhaps I was wrong to hope that Clegg would disavow the social democrats in his party in this speech. One should always be wary of criticising politicians simply because they decline to do what you would have them do. Equally, one should not assume that doing what one would want them to do is the path to either political or policy success.
Clearly there needs to be a "nevertheless" here. So, nevertheless, it's interesting to learn that Clegg has been talking to Guido Westerwelle, leader of Germany's Free Democrats. Here, more than anywhere else in europe, is a model for the Lib Dems that could lead them to a more interesting and, yes, more coherent place.
Much of Westminster seems to think that falling to 15% in the polls is the beginning of the end for the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps it will be. But there's no need to assume that it is. The question is not so much whether the Lib Dems need to hover around 20% to be "relevant" as whether they can win enough seats to retain influence. I don't see why they can't, not least since a decline in nationwide Lib Dem support does not mean that Lib Dem voters are deserting the party in the seats they currently hold. (Look at Scotland: the Lib Dems won fewer votes than the SNP but took nearly twice as many seats. They won just 52,000 more votes than the Tories but have 11 Scottish seats to the Tories' one. Where the votes are found matters.)
More generally, Clegg is surely right to think that with Labour happy to shift slightly to the left and with Blair and Iraq matters of the past there is little room in being - or being seen to be placed - on the left of Labour. This in turn leads one to suppose that Clegg appreciates that some of the gains made in the Kennedy-Clegg era were made on the back of borrowed votes that would eventully return whence they came. From that, we may suggest that the Lib Dems have over-performed in the last two elections.
So what kind of party do they want to be? There dosn't seem to be an obvious future for them as a run-of-the-mill social democratic party. But there could be room for them as a British equivalent of the Free Democrats. That socially-liberal but fiscally-conservative position is not the stuff of mass movements but it is a gap in the market that can be exploited. Adopting it means putting away the dream of supplanting either of the other two main parties but political parties shouldn't be in the business of kidding themselves with dreams anyway.
I suspect the ceiling for this sort of party probably lies around 15%. The FDP's election performances suggest that. So too does the research done by David Boaz at Cato which finds that roughly 15% of American voters could also be considered socially-liberal and fiscally-conservative. (Of course, our poor American cousins don't have a party that embraces this position.) Conveniently, if the borrowed-vote and the old SDP-vote has already left the Liberal Democrats then we may be able to suggest that roughly 15% of the British electorate could also fit into this category. I accept that this may seem too neat and too damn convenient.
Yet a party that took the Free Democrats' slogan "As much government as is necessary; as little as is possible" has an appealling message (and a winning soundbite!). This would be a party that advocated simplifying the tax code, vigorously pursued education reform, stoutly defended choice and civil liberties, was hostile to subsidies, rent-seeking, monopolies and boondoggles, believed in deregulation, embraced gay marriage, privatisation and pension reform, believed in local democracy and funding local democracy at the local level, had a sane drugs policy, reformed prisons and higher education, was relatively relaxed about immigration and europe and so on... Well, that might be a party worth supporting! At the very least it would be a party that stood for something and that, from my perspective anyway, would be a proper liberal party rather than the cobbled-together compromise that has defined the Liberal Democrat experience. (It could also, mind you, win voes from the right as well as the centre.)
Hopi Sen lists some of the objections to the Lib Dem-FDP argument and they're well-made and worth taking seriously. However, how may seats do the Lib Dems need? In one sense, obviously, the more they have the more likely it is that future parliaments (regardless of the voting system) will be hung. But they may not need 50 or 60 seats to retain influence. 40 might do. If the Lib Dems can win 15% of the vote and neither the Tories nor Labour break through the 40% barrier then the odds on a hung parliament remain pretty good.
If - and obviously it's a hefty if - that is the case then, as in Germany, one should think that the logical coalition arrangement would be two Conservative-Liberal coalitions for every one Labour-Liberal deal. That brings me back to where we began in May: David Cameron's sense of political imagination has (or at least potentially has) given the Tories first-mover advantage when it comes to setting the default positions and presumptions for British politics for the foreseeable future.
I suspec the Liberal Democrats aren't ready to be as bold as I think they should be but I'm pretty sure David Laws thinks this should be their future. Maybe Clegg does too. Equidistance should remain dead, not least because it allows other parties to dictate the Liberals' positioning (forcing the Lib Dems to move even if they think they are right). This strategy - besides its congenial policy merits! - has the advantage of allowing them to remain their own party and the bonus of making that party rather more coherent and plausible than might otherwise be the case.
High-risk? Certainly. Too good to be true? Quite possibly. Too close to my own preferences for it to happen? Certainly. But worth it? I think so.