Simon Heffer

The dustbin party

The Lib Dems are a mess of contradictions, says Simon Heffer. They want to build and conserve; they want to decriminalise cannabis and ban smoking in public places. Disenchanted Tories should not be seduced

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Her Majesty's Government is in a right mid-term mess. The public services don't work, despite all the extra cash being thrown at them. The public has, according to a poll last weekend, completely lost confidence in the forces of law and order. Illegal immigration continues unchecked. The gap between revenue and expenditure is expanding. Mr Blair is losing the support of his party, and Mrs Blair is the public's choice to be deported. Another opinion poll shows the gap between Labour and the Tories to be a mere 5 per cent.

However, while the government's support is collapsing, the Tories' is hardly shifting upwards. Disillusioned voters are either swelling the ranks of the millions who do not participate in the political process, or they do something even more inexplicable: they decide to support the Liberal Democrats.

For some time now, seeking to capitalise on the difficulties facing the Tories, the Lib Dems' affable leader, Charles Kennedy, has been talking of his party as 'the opposition'. Indeed he said, just a fortnight after the last election, that 'Britain chose the Liberal Democrats as the effective opposition to Labour'.

This phrase set the tone of mendacity for the party's course through this parliament. It has 110 fewer MPs than the Conservative party, making it the effective opposition in much the same way as Scunthorpe United threatens Arsenal. Since Labour only governs in Wales and Scotland with the aid of the Lib Dems, the party's claim to be an opposition of any description is remarkably far-fetched. At Westminster the party voted with Labour 68 per cent of the time on second- and third-reading votes in the 1997 parliament. Anybody supporting them because of disillusion with Labour makes a peculiar protest; equally, anybody supporting them because they might get honest or competent politics for a change is making a serious mistake.

At last September's party conference lucky people could still buy the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors' booklet entitled (wait for it) 'Effective Opposition', in which the following advice was given on how to practise politics in opposition at a local level. 'Be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly