‘They set themselves up as the party of honesty, who will tell the truth about fiscal restraint, but on the issue over which they have most control — the role they would play in a hung Parliament — they offer only obfuscation. They define themselves constantly in terms of the other two parties, then when it comes to the crunch they refuse to say what demands they would make in return for their co-operation. The C-word Mr Clegg will not use is coalition.
Of course there is a difficult line to tread: the Liberal Democrats can’t just look like they are rolling over in front of the bigger parties. But, as one MP puts it, being a kingmaker is almost as good as being the king. Few in his party think that Mr Clegg would prop up Gordon Brown if Labour had lost the popular vote, so he should make his intentions clear. He would look more credible if, instead of calling Mr Cameron names, he set out how he would be a liberal restraining influence on a Tory government.
He might also benefit from candour. If the Lib Dems could turn the election into a poll about what they would bring to a coalition, they would maximise their support because a vote for them would no longer be seen as a wasted vote. Paradoxically, they may do best by admitting their limits. As sports stars like to say: “You can’t win unless you learn how to lose.”
The Lib Dems are not treating ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen. They stress that on tax and the EU there’s more between the parties than what Cameron described as ‘a cigarette paper’; in fact, on this morning’s Today programme a self-consciously politically correct Chris Huhne, rather than deploy Rizla-inspired political metaphors, emphasised the distance by referring to “more than a... slither of difference”. Despite Vince Cable’s disingenuousness and Nick Clegg’s denials, there is obvious common ground between the parties, notably on progressive politics, civil liberties and the extent of cuts. Maintaining his party’s independence is all very well, but Clegg is one of the few Liberal leaders who has the opportunity to influence government, which can only benefit his party electorally. He should take it.