There is an ancient tradition in Britain of beating the bounds, where once a year, various members of the community walk the boundaries of their parish to fix its location and protect it from encroachment. In some cases, they would take boys and whip them, with the intent that such a traumatic event would be fixed in their memory.
The general elections of 2015 and 2017 were certainly traumatic events for the Liberal Democrats, and they clearly still weigh heavily on the party’s collective memory. The shadow of the decision to go into coalition hangs over their campaign even as they try and edge their way into a new era.
In the lead up to that 2010 General Election the Lib Dems were positioning themselves as open to a deal with either party, the sensible moderating force that could be a safe harbour for voters that were feeling disgruntled but not disgusted with the two largest parties. A realignment without a rejection. In April 2010 the Telegraph reported that “Nick Clegg had delivered his most outspoken attack on Gordon Brown, calling him ‘a desperate politician.’” Which in 2019 sounds practically friendly.
Nine and a half years on and Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats are singing a very different tune. The gloves are off and the knives are out and coated with vitriol. Boris Johnson is a serial liar, Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to the economy, both are utterly unfit to lead the country. In the event of a hung parliament she has ruled out supporting either of them. This campaign will be an exercise the creativity of her speechwriters as they hunt for new epithets to keep things fresh, and Swinson appears to relish being in the thick of the fight.
This leaves the JSLDs with few options open to them if there is a 2017 style election swing and a hung parliament is the outcome. Nick Clegg was faced with the choice of pursuing a Conservative coalition, a Labour-led rainbow alliance on a razor thin majority or allowing a Conservative minority government (and probably a hasty second election). The rest is recent, and for the Lib Dems painful, history.
That Swinson is attacking the leaders rather than their parties is a tactic aimed at attracting wavering voters rather than post-election positioning. Neither party is going to engage in the messy process of replacing a leader with a hung parliament. It’s hard to see how a climbdown is possible. Politics is a business that demands conflict and compromise in quick succession but there are limits even so.
If Jo Swinson is faced with a similar choice to Nick Clegg, she seems set to take the opposite path and refuse any deals and abstain through to a minority government or a new election. The alternative version history will play out with a separate set of pitfalls. Will allowing a Conservative minority government to take power leave them painted as Tory lackeys (as the Labour party will doubtless try to do). Will there be a new election and with it the task of dealing with questions of what the Lib Dems are realistically for if the (PR supporting) party is not interested in coalition.
We may learn what many suspected all along, that Clegg (and now Swinson) had no good options open to them.
Tomas Forsey is a longstanding PBer who posts on PB as Corporeal and tweets as PBcorporeal