James Forsyth

Whither the Lib Dems?

Whither the Lib Dems?
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A striking aspect of the Liberal Democrat conference is how discussion of cooperation with Labour takes place in public while talk of any future work with their current coalition partner happens in private.

Tonight, Paddy Ashdown told an Observer fringe meeting that the Liberal Democrats’ long-term goal should still be to become the dominant party of the centre-left in Britain. I must admit that I struggle to see how this is possible. The steps that the coalition needs to take to deal with what Nick Clegg calls the ‘invisible crisis’ of the deficit will alienate the party from the centre left.

But then again, as one liberal Liberal Democrat said to me last night, of the party’s MPs only half a dozen are authentic liberals. Such a small group can drive change in a party—just look at the Blairites and the Cameroons. But this change is always vulnerable to the party reverting to the norm.

One fascinating thing to watch with the Liberal Democrats is whether a credible alternative leader to Clegg emerges over the next few years. At the moment, Vince Cable and Chris Huhne are the two ‘if Clegg was hit by a bus’ candidates. But both men are older than Clegg, Cable significantly so, and Huhne has already run for the leadership once. Who emerges from the next generation will be telling about both where the talent lies and where the party will go in the future.