Hugo Rifkind

No, honestly, I want to know: why haven’t the Lib Dems quit

No, honestly, I want to know: why haven't the Lib Dems quit
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Why would you be a Lib Dem? That’s a rhetorical question, obviously, because I think we all know that the bulk of well-meaning, ineffectual perverts actually read the New Statesman. But still, imagine you were one. What’s it all for? And, more to the point, why are you still in government?

I keep asking this question of people cleverer than me, and they keep chuckling, as though I’m making a gag. But I’m serious. Why are the coalition’s junior partners still in there? Even the numbers of people prepared to have weird sex with them must be dropping on a daily basis. Why do they keep turning up for work?

Argument one: the Lib Dems are actually achieving plenty, just quietly.

Come off it. No they aren’t. There was the pupil premium, which I’ll have to ­Google one of these days, and I’m aware there has been some terribly significant wibbling with pensions. And fixed-term parliaments, which we shall come to. But other than that? An AV referendum which you lose humiliatingly isn’t much of an achievement. The rise in the tax threshold can’t have been a hard sell to the Tories, given that it’s effectively a tax cut, and House of Lords reform is a fiasco. Plus, all these things have already happened. What are your plans for the next two years?

Argument two: the Lib Dems are dragging the government to the left.

This is a view popular among Lib Dems, because it makes them feel noble, and popular among some slightly deranged Tories, too, because it reinforces that creeping view that everything would be alright if only Nadine Dorries were in charge. But it’s drivel. Remember the Conservative party at the start of 2006? It was all hug-a-hoodie, windfarms and huskies. I even dimly remember Cameron taking a controversial trip to Rwanda, buggered if I know why, but I bet it wasn’t because they’re keen advocates of flat taxes. You’re telling me that was a party further to the right than this one? Do me a lemon. Really, you mean…

Argument three: the presence of the Lib Dems in coalition gives Cameron the strength to resist aforementioned deranged calls to move his party further to the right.

To which I would say, ‘Yeah, maybe.’ And also, ‘good’ (let’s not fight about that right now). Except that’s a reason for Cameron to want to preserve the coalition, not for his Lib Dem partners to, which is the point at issue. So let us move along, to…

Argument four: the Lib Dems need to show that coalitions can work, because otherwise there’s no point in them existing and nobody will ever vote for them again.

Good argument, this one. But it fails, crucially, on a keen reading of the word ‘work’. True, there’s no point in voting Lib Dem if they don’t have the stomach to be in government. Yet, surely, there’s also no point in voting Lib Dem if them being in government isn’t going to make any difference anyway. The mere maintenance of a coalition is not an achievement. It’s not enough to just be there, filling chairs. The Tories should be thrilled with coalition; for them, it’s an enabler. But from a Lib Dem perspective? What’s working there?

Argument five: They’re fighting to preserve the idea of fixed-term parliaments.

It’s my own theory, this one, and I appreciate it needs a bit of work. But the single Lib Dem constitutional triumph has been wholly misunderstood by most commentators, who seem to consider it synonymous with fixed-term governments. Actually it means governments can rise or fall, during a five-year period, but the public don’t necessarily get to vote on it.

If the coalition fell apart tomorrow, though, parliament would probably call an early election out of habit. The Lib Dems need that habit to change. So, even if they’re currently a laughing stock, and their vote dips for a generation, some day down the line, maybe when Clegg is as old as Ming, they’ll be reaping the benefit.

What do you reckon? Too conspiratorial? By my reckoning, it’s either that or…

Argument six: they have no plan at all, and are just bumbling haplessly along from one day to the next.

A bad week for Bruce Springsteen. When the plug was pulled on his gig last week, cutting him off mid-duet with Sir Paul McCartney because he broke a curfew, that was bad enough. But when the Mayor of London, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph united in his support, hell, that must have been torture.

Obviously, there was an element of self-interest in this. It was less ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’ and more an ‘Old white men shocked to discover that rules normally approved of by old white men also apply to old white men who make music old white men like’ sort of thing. Jay-Z, say, might not have garnered such sympathy. But ­mainly it was just cruel. This was the man who embodied a generational revolution singing with the hero of blue-collar America. ‘An excessively efficacious decision!’ trills Boris Johnson. Poor bastards. We might as well bury them alive.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

Written byHugo Rifkind

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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