Scott’s piece is a continuation of this post from yesterday.
Whilst most coalition disagreements to this point have remained contained, the AV referendum managed to trigger vocal friction. The Conservatives funded, and strongly supported, the ‘No’ campaign. The Lib Dems were passionately backing reform of the voting system through the ‘Yes’ campaign. Let the conflict begin. Initially, David Cameron agreed not to get involved in the referendum. However, following strong early support in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote, he chose to step in. He caused hostility by accusing his coalition partner of “broken promises” and urged the general public to keep the current first-past-the-post system in place. The Liberal Democrats were belittled, and their hopes of a successful referendum were lost.
The decisive victory of the ‘No’ campaign will undoubtedly lead to coalition fallout. The far-left of the party are demanding they pull out of the hybrid. Moreover, and perhaps more significantly, the party’s moderates are now beginning to question the collaboration. Many of the defeated councillors are insisting that Clegg either pulls out of the coalition or risk alienating the Liberal Democrats.
This is why drastic action must be taken immediately. Both Clegg and Cameron have come out and stated that the coalition will survive the full 5 years. Following the overwhelming rejection of voting reform, Clegg has claimed his party must “move on” and continue to “get on with what we have to do”. These words are noticeably vague. They lack commitment and hint at an upheaval. Over the last 12 months, Clegg has consistently appeared at his most candid and honest when speaking out of earshot of Mr Cameron. His liberal ideology is permitted an airing and reminds liberal supporters why it was they placed their faith in the man.
Now is the time for Clegg to hit the ejector button. If he is to rescue any credibility whatsoever, and allow his party an opportunity to salvage some self-respect and integrity, he must act now, and act swiftly. The rebirth must commence right away. While it is obvious and imperative that the Lib Dems leave government, the only remaining grey area concerns whether or not Mr Clegg should continue on as leader. It is too easy to shovel all the blame onto the party leader. The liberals should not forget who it was that gained them their popularity and forced them into such a powerful position.
Deputy Leader Simon Hughes stated that “radicals and progressives are alive and well” within the party, signalling that they have lost none of their far-left beliefs and principles. It is also easy to forget – among all the myths and mud throwing – just how well some of the Liberal Democrat MPs have performed in office. Politicians such as Chris Huhne, Vince Cable, Simon Hughes, even Nick Clegg himself, have represented themselves well and epitomised what we all knew the Lib Dems were capable of. Added to that, party veterans such as Paddy Ashdown, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy continue to make a significant contribution behind the scenes and help rally the cause.
Were the Liberal Democrats to leave the coalition, many – including the Conservatives – will accuse them of turning their backs on the country, abandoning it during what is unquestionably a delicate period. However, the local elections, and various opinion polls, suggest that were a general election to be called tomorrow, the Tories would stand a good chance of gaining an overall majority. This begs the question, would leaving not suit everyone?
Ed Miliband has failed to make headway since becoming leader of the Labour party. This allows the Lib Dems to mull the option of separating from government a lot more seriously. Had Labour gained significantly at the local elections, Conservatives would have had the ammunition to claim that a break-up of Downing Street’s amalgamation would more than likely result in a Labour government; a Labour government that only a year ago was rejected at the ballot box.
The events of last week have now granted the Lib Dems a plausible motive for escape. To leave would be to ensure a separate identity, to allow a seemingly popular Conservative government to continue ruling and avoid an ostracised Labour renaissance. To remain in government would ensure an even steeper decline of Lib Dem support, unavoidably leading to a two-party battle at the next general election. The impressive 2010 rise of liberalism would have been for nothing. A lost cause and a wasted opportunity. There may still be life left in this temporarily sidetracked liberal bandwagon. Here’s hoping.
Scott Hill is an independent journalist.