This was the biggest disaster in nearly a century?
The Lib Dems and their predecessors have been through some bad times over the years but what faces them now is their worst crisis in nearly a century. It is worse than the splits over Ireland under Gladstone that ended their pre-eminent position in the country; it is worse than the division between Asquith and Lloyd George, which ended them as a party of government; it is worse than the post-merger slump which saw them finish fourth in the 1989 European elections and reduce them to just a few points in the polls. Only the splintering of their party on the formation of the National government in 1931 was a disaster of similar scale and that took forty years to recover from, during which time they came close to extinction.
A quick recap of the Lib Demsâ€™ current position reveals just how big a task the new leader faces:
– They have lost council seats at each of the last seven rounds of May elections, haemorrhaging more than two thousand councillors in that period.
– For every one Lib Dem MP, there are seven from the SNP.
– For every one Lib Dem MSP, there are three Conservatives.
– They have only one MEP; the Greens have three.
– They lost their deposit in more than half the seats in the 2015 General Election and finished outside the top three in the popular vote for the first time ever.
– They lie only fifth when ranked by membership, behind the SNP and Greens, though ahead of UKIP.
It is a brutally weak base, not just because of the small number of elected members but because there are now so many other established challengers seeking to take their place (something that was not the case the last time they had so few MPs).
One significant problem will be getting airtime. When he was Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg could rely on being seen and read about, as could his senior lieutenants in the cabinet. Not now. I would be very surprised if Ofcom is not reviewing the Lib Demsâ€™ major party status in the light of their performance in the ballot box. Panel discussions will likely either be Con/Lab or will include the other second-rank parties. Either way, their voice is diminished.
And therein lies the biggest part of the problem: the voice itself. What exactly do the Lib Dems stand for? It is simply not enough to be â€˜not the Toriesâ€™ or â€˜not Labourâ€™. Appealing for tactical votes is fine when youâ€™re a comfortable second and seemingly inoffensive but nigh-on impossible when youâ€™re fourth or fifth, which the Lib Dems are in a lot of seats (and not only non-target ones either: the Lib Dem finished fourth in Camborne & Redruth, which they held in its previous form from 2005-10 and lost by only 66 votes in 2010). Being a â€˜moderating influenceâ€™ is all very well but itâ€™s not the sort of battle-cry to inspire the troops or recruit new ones. In any case, voters unhappy with the Tories and Labour seem far happier looking for the opposite of a moderating influence: to the left of Labour with the SNP and Greens, or the right of the Tories with UKIP (yes, itâ€™s more complex than that but not greatly so).
So if being the reasonable voice of the centre wonâ€™t cut it for the Lib Dems, what will? There is of course always the well-trodden path of local activism and that no doubt has its part to play but only where the party already has an established base and that has its limits, particularly with the boundary review likely to shake up the map. To my mind, the Lib Dems have, or could have, two genuinely distinctive messages that no other party is selling. One is being unashamedly pro-EU. That will matter in the next three years and could be the ticket back into the heart of the action. Itâ€™s true that they did play that card in 2014 and it flopped badly but a referendum may be a different matter. The second, however, is the stronger, and is to return to a more classical liberalism: for individual freedom and against state encroachment, whether economic, social or in excessive policing powers. Some would argue that no other party is selling either message because neither is popular and thereâ€™s something in that â€“ but unpopular doesnâ€™t mean thereâ€™s no support and the alternative is to contest other policy ground where other stronger parties are already encamped.
What is clear is that Tim Farron, Norman Lamb or whoever cannot simply resurrect the old model for success: the world has changed too much, as has the party. What is also clear â€“ or at least likely â€“ is that theyâ€™ll only get one shot at recovery. One disaster can be written off as exceptional; two could well be terminal.
p.s. A quick word about the Tories. One thing we do know about this parliament is that thereâ€™ll be a Tory leadership election. It will come at one of three points: either a revolt against Cameron if the parliamentary party believes he has failed in the EU negotiations but where the PM still intends to back â€˜inâ€™, following a defeat in the EU referendum, or in the final six months of the parliament as Cameron voluntarily hands over power. My expectation is for the final scenario. I believe the EU is ready to do a deal sufficient to keep Britain in: this is not about renegotiating fish prices but the very future of the entire Union and that will concentrate minds.
If so, the next Tory leader is probably not even in the cabinet yet, nor will it be Boris. Boris was the candidate for 2015, up against a Miliband premiership. 2020 will be a different election from that scenario, not least because the Tories will be going into it in power. The Conservatives also have a habit of picking leaders not obviously identifiable from four years out (often not so 18 months out). At this stage â€“ and probably for the next two years â€“ the best option is probably to lay all the leading runners.