Alex Massie

Will the Lib Dems Become the Stupid Party?

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Frailty, thy name is coalition. Right? That still seems to be what many people think. Take Simon Heffer's column today, for instance in which he concludes:

Whoever wins – and, at the hustings, the benign mood towards Miliband E is at the moment palpable, precisely because of his low profile during the Brown terror – it will signal a proper re-engagement of political battle, the end of the Government's extended honeymoon, and the presentation of the first real challenges to the Coalition.

The planned constitutional reforms will be the stumbling block for the Government, and should be the new leader's prime target, even more than the economic strictures. After all, there should be no getting away from the fact that those strictures are Labour's fault. Peers tell me that some of the constitutional plans – including the referendum on the alternative vote – will not get through their House. That would be difficult enough. But MPs from both main parties tell me not to imagine they will sail through the Commons. If the Lib Dems are disappointed, they will start calculating when best to end the arrangement and distance themselves from the Tories to avoid obliteration.

That is why a leader of the Labour Party with more box office appeal than Gordon Brown could find himself prime minister within a year. And that is why this leadership contest, by which so many of us have quite understandably decided to be bored, is actually rather important.

Clearly, all this could happen and one should never presume that political parties won't lose their minds. But the coalition will, I suggest, only fall if one of the partners has a nervous breakdown. If the Liberal Democrats think they can "avoid obliteration" by distancing themselves from the Tories then, my friends, they are deluded.

In fact, that kind of calculated distancing - or, to put it another way a disavowal of their own record in government - will invite disaster at the polls. This will be doubly so if the Lib Dems are perceived to have broken the government over an issue that, while important to them, is not considered vital by the public. An electoral reform referendum might well be just that kind of issue.

In any case, it's too late for any of this distancing business now. Alea iacta est. If the coalition does fall inside a year and if the Lib Dems are seen to provoke an entirely unecessary and unwanted political mess then the reckoning will be severe. No, they must run on their record and the coalition's achievements. Any other approach is likely to prove disastrous.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.