Martin Bright

Who Said Never Underestimate the Lib Dems? I Did

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In September 2005 I wrote about the "stampede for the centre ground" in an article for the New Statesman. I had just been underwhelmed by the Liberal democrat conference in Blackpool and noted how easy it was to sneer about the centre party from the Westminster village. The Lib Dems were not making it easy for themselves as they struggled to come to terms with the rise of so-called "Orange Book" Lib Dems such as David Laws and Nick Clegg on the right of the party.

However, I said at the time:

"It is tempting... to dismiss the Liberal Democrats. It would be unwise to do so yet. Those in the other two main parties thinking seriously about politics recognise this. Ken Clarke has warned that the Tories could be overtaken as the second party, while Peter Hain has sought to disabuse disgruntled Labour supporters of the belief that the Lib Dems are now a party of the left. Though both are trying to scare traditional voters back to the fold, there is also truth in what they are saying. Clarke and Hain know they cannot sneer: nearly six million people voted Lib Dem at the election - and not all of them can be stupid."

The two major parties and the lobby were content to dismiss the people who chose to vote Lib Dem as long as they had no prospect of power. They can no longer afford to do so. Watching Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander at the Labour Party press conference on Monday made me realise they are still trapped in the headlights of the Lib Dem surge. At the same time, the Tory attacks on a hung parliament make you wonder what they will do in the event of their nightmare scenario materialising.

It wasn't difficult to see this coming. In 1992 there were 20 Lib Dem MPS, now there are more than 60. And this increase has happened at a time when there was no logical reason to vote for this party.

A year ago, just before the European and local election, I warned in the Spectator that there was a real possibility of the Labour Party becoming the third party. The subsequent narrowing of the polls hid the fragility of Labour's position. Brown's legacy could be to take his party not from government to opposition but to obliteration. The Liberal Democrats are coming. Don't say I didn't warn you.