Why the Libdems won’t last in the Coalition until 2015

5:47 pm - May 28th 2011

by Sunder Katwala    

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So each of the Coalition parties are currently entertaining the theory that they would be better off dividing a good way before the short election campaign. But it is less obvious that they can both be right.

The shared problem for each is the threat of a General Election.

The Conservatives are more nervous about the path to a Parliamentary majority than they appear in public – not least because none of their leadership team shared the confidence of the party and its press supporters that it was heading for a clear victory next time.

So the Tories would certainly not want an election without the new boundaries. And the reason for the LibDems to not want an earlier general election is, at present, rather more existential.

Hence the return of the idea of “confidence and supply”.

But can it work? The conundrum there is how the LibDems would explain that they no longer believe that they should be part of the government, and prepare to campaign against it, while being still responsible for sustaining a Tory government.

That could simply cost them the support of those voters who thought they did the right thing in the first place, without winning back the trust of lost LibDems who feel betrayed.

Still, the LibDem case for support if the Coalition lasts right up to a May 2015 campaign is quite difficult to articulate too.

In this endgame scenario, the post-Coalition Liberal Democrats would naturally need new leadership in order to seek to differentiate themselves from their erstwhile partners in government.

That makes it impossible to see how the Liberal Democrats can attempt an amicable divorce without current leader Nick Clegg having previously made his own decision that he would prefer a new challenge on the international stage to defending Sheffield Hallam at the next General Election

Chris Huhne’s availability is now in doubt, making Tim Farron the likely frontrunner for a party looking for new direction and leadership.

How to achieve that within 12-18 months is more difficult. So the risk is that the party might do even worse if it seems to be running away from its record in government, rather than running on it, so exacerbating the damage of having been in the government during its most unpopular phase, and then absent when the war-chest is unlocked.

If it looks like a case of ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t’ then that conundrum will be causing plenty of headaches among Liberal Democrats at Westminster.

A long time before 2015.

A longer version of this article is on Next Left

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments

The Lib Dems were damned as soon as a hung parliament was announced. They and Clegg would be just as hated now as they would have been if they’d joined with Labour or entered into a Confidence and Supply deal. I think they will probably end up accepting the hit at the next general election and then changing leadership. Although they’re more ruthless with leaders than Labour, the leadership challengers will accept what the various labour leadership challengers accepted before the general election, that it’s not worth taking over only to have to step down after the election. It would be a crying shame if Tim Farron ended up with that fate, as he’s got a lot of electoral appeal and is generally quite nice.

The Lib Dems will stay in the joke govt as long as they do what the tories tell them to do. The moment they stand up to the tories , the tories will burn down the agreement. (with the support of the tory media)

The Lib Dems sold themselves very, very cheaply. And have nothing to show for it. Except they boast about how they got rid of income tax for the low paid. But seeing as they also put up VAT to 20% it amounts to not much more than a row of beans.

This headline, and much of the piece, are absolute nonsense.

This is a coalition. If you want to know how it will end, look at other coalitions around the world (or just go to Scotland or Wales).

Anyone who’s bothered to do any serious research into this will know that the Lib Dem plan has always been:

Stage 1: Prove that coalitions can work
Stage 2: Prove that you don’t agree with your coalition partners on everything
Stage 3: Start to differentiate and disentangle yourself before the general election

We’re currently on Stage 2. I imagine that in 2014, the two parties will agree on their legislation program for the last six months of government, set a date for the general election and then start disentangling themselves.

As far as the Lib Dems go, six months before the general election we will probably choose a new leader (but not a new DPM). An example of this happening elsewhere is the leader of the german liberal party resigning as leader but not as a member of government in the run up to their elections.

The next six months will be an election campaign where both parties will seek to put distance between each other. Each party will probably defend the things they’ve done in government that their supporters agree with and will look for policies to put in their manifesto that they can disagree with each other on. Trident is one likely example.

And yes, our new leader will probably be Tim Farron. But there is almost nobody in the party or in our parliamentary party who wants an early election or an early leadership contest. Both would be immensely damaging to both our reputation and our electoral chances.

In short, nice try, but this article isn’t worth the pixels it’s displayed on.

I should also point out that the council election results indicate that Clegg would successfully hold onto his Sheffield Hallam seat.

I see George is as deluded as usual.

Seems to be a character trait of your average Lib Dem.

Good analysis, thanks. When do the boundary changes come in?


At least I’m not a coward who ignores anyone who challenges her bullshitting.

My, my the Lie Dems are getting very uppity these days. Pity they don’t get a bit more aggressive with their tory masters.

Although I predicted that the downfall of the coalition would be before this May (I was wrong on that) I do believe that it won’t last the full course of this Parliament. As I have said here http://aledwyn.com/2011/04/25/the-end-of-the-condem-coalition/

FWIW my impression is that the LibDems would stand a much better chance in the next general election with a new leader. Clegg’s credibility is looking very damaged.

Well Nick Clegg has sold his Sheffield home, so unless he’s planning on buying another in the area or renting, it does suggest that leaving his constituency, by one means or another, is already on his mind.

12. Workman Fred

I think Labour should be a bit worried & head for the centre ground!

The rightwing of the Tories see Cameron as weak & far too much to the left to call himself a proper Tory, the public, or at least the workingman side that I see, think the Liberals have kept Cameron from doing anything too right wing & so feel happy that the Tories are nicely balanced in the middle. By the next election Cameron will be seen by the public as a very nice centre of the road type bloke with compassion.
The liberals by that time will have probably proved that they will do what is necessary for the good of the country and of course are still obviously nice people who now have the experience to say we run a country, you can trust us.

Labour, because they haven’t been able to be a proper opposition, Liberals are seeing to that, will have to rely on their core voters for votes as the public will, I believe by then, be looking at UKIP as well as the Liberals, of course depending on their view, because Europe by then, if still going! Will be a white hot topic.

So how will labour win back the trust of the working man they hurt when they were last in power? Stop immigration, I don’t think so.
How will they show they have been an affective opposition, if the liberals can claim that they have been the opposition not Labour?
If the economy has, as many suspect, picked up by then, even if just enough to produce a feel “better” factor, what have Labour done to make sure they were part of it?

No point me going on but I believe labour have to become something many on the left of the party don’t like, just to be in with half a chance of winning next time, just as the Tories are doing with the right!

13. Mr Grunt

I think that the deceiful, selfish bunch of liars will stick it out to the end because they are preying that the world financial problems will give them a break and the economy will improve.

14. Thatcherite Clegg

More Potty stuff from Clegg’s adoring minion.

Stage 1: Prove that coalitions can work

Cameron has. You are the fall guy and he and his backbenchers laugh at you. That is the established order and how it will always be.

Stage 2: Prove that you don’t agree with your coalition partners on everything

Clegg thought Cameron should play nice on AV and Cameron didn’t agree. Clegg ends up with nothing and looks a fool.

Stage 3: Start to differentiate and disentangle yourself before the general election

Your best chance was to do so on the NHS. But Calamity Clegg signed up to Lansley’s privatisation madness already and his current posturing is about as convincing as his posturing on tuition fees were. Clegg will always cave in to the tories. It’s who he is and why Cameron loves him so much.

Come the election Osborne will say the Liberal Democrats were lightweights who held him back and the only way to ensure a strong economy is to ditch the dead weight and let him be chancellor without the annoying park ranger and cranky old man messing everything up. The tories and right wing press will destroy you in an election campaign while Osborne and Cameron laugh. You know this to be true after what happened on the AV referendum.

15. So Much For Subtlety

The problem with our emerging professional class of politicians, who have rarely ever done anything else in their lives, is that being in office is everything to them. They have spent their whole lives preparing for office. They also have nothing to fall back on. It is not as if they have a plough to return to. Or even their own business. So they have a deep need to remain in office.

Will the Coalition last?

Well let’s compare the Lib-Dems with the majority of the Labour Party under Blair. That was a de facto coalition between Blair and his few friends with the Labour Party. What did Blair give them? A Tory-bashing ban on Fox Hunting. Anything else? He tossed a couple of billion the way of their favourite clients like the NHS. That’s about it. On the other hand they had the humiliation of Iraq and being, basically, Thatcherite.

Have the Lib-Dems suffered anything as bad as Iraq was for the Labour Party? No. Not even if Cameron privatised the NHS. So clearly they will continue to swallow the gall and struggle on in government. Because the alternative is utter irrelevance. No one taking you seriously. No government car. No Red Boxes. Anything is better than giving that up.


That is a natural progression, true, but it’s not clear how, given the specifics of the current situation, that translates into votes. Let’s see:

Well, what’s your definition of “work” here? That the government doesn’t actually fall apart? I assume it’s not to do with both parties getting a fair (to some definition of fair) say on policy, because that’s really point 2. I also assume it’s not that the government can legislate as freely and decisively as a one-party government, as that’s being undermined by the current NHS situation.

So, okay, showing that a coalition government can stay together and legislate when necessary might do a little to reduce the public’s squeamishness towards the idea of coalition. But is that really the deciding factor in whether or not to put a tick in the box next to the Lib Dem candidate’s name? Surely the truly critical point is whether or not that tick will get the voter’s views represented in government. Which brings us onto 2.

I’m not a hardliner, so I’m not going to deny that displays like the NHS reform (whatever the underlying motives) will help the Lib Dems. But when somebody votes, they are making a calculation- how can they maximise the actions of the government which they agree with, and minimise those they don’t. If the Lib Dems had not formed a coalition, and the Tories had governed in minority, the Tories would be just as unable to push these NHS reforms as they are now. So what the Lib Dems are doing isn’t a gain for somebody opposed to these reforms, it’s just not propping up a loss.

The actual case that the Lib Dems has to make is much harder than just showing that they disagree, it’s showing that the centre-left (or thereabouts) voter actually GAINS something by putting them in coalition government. There are two ways of doing this: either block something that would go through if some of the Lib Dem seats had instead been held by the voter’s second-favourite party; or actually start steering, rather than reacting to, policy.

One of my friends suggested that tuition fees may be a candidate for the first of these, and that the Lib Dems could suggest that, had the Tories been in minority, they together with some Labour MPs would have been able to pass even higher fees. Whether or not this is true, I don’t think it’ll be easy to sell to the public at this stage. It’s generally not too easy to find something big to sell to the public that is Lib Dem and opposed by both Tories and Labour, and with AV being shot down and the particular focus on economic and financial issues at the moment, it becomes even harder.

For the second… well, I guess the pupil premium could be an example of this? But that’s never really gotten much play with the media. The perception is almost entirely of the Lib Dems as reacting to the Tories, rather than pushing their own agenda for the Tories to react to.

This seems largely undermined by the realities of (1). The whole problem that the Lib Dems are facing is that they’ve publicly, and in some cases to great public opposition, had to cut out great swathes of their manifesto. It doesn’t matter what their policies are, only what their influence on government would be if they formed a coalition, and in demonstrating the wide gap between the two, the Lib Dems have made this difficult to pursue (not that this is necessarily their fault, but it’s still the reality).

Really, the problem is that very, very few people are going to have a reason to tick the Lib Dem candidate’s name over anybody else’s (apart, of course, from constituency-scale tactical voting). Not everyone votes tactically, and it’s possible that (3) will be enough to get the votes of people who agree with the Lib Dem manifesto, but after 5 years of being subjected to the realities of coalition government, it’s likely that a lot of people are going to be voting for or against not “The Lib Dems” but “The Lib Dems in coalition”.

The three-step route you describe seems to be deeply insufficient to actually get votes. And it’s really the take on (2) that’s the biggest problem, as I described. Just disagreement isn’t enough, it’s the nature (and of course resolution) of the disagreement that matters. While this NHS thing is a nice way to douse some of the Clegg hate, as I said it doesn’t provide a single reason that this parliament is better for people opposed to the reforms than a parliament in which the Conservatives are in minority and some of the Lib Dem seats have been shifted to Labour.

“If the economy has, as many suspect, picked up by then, even if just enough to produce a feel “better” factor……..I believe Labour have to become something many on the left of the party don’t like, just to be in with half a chance of winning next time”

Workman Fred.

You can read on another thread on this site how “living standards for over 11 million workers on low and middle incomes in the UK are unlikely to improve even when the economy begins to grow again”. The report, from the Resolution Foundation, reveals that average pay is set to be no higher in 2015 than in 2001.

Couple that with a current lead of 6-7% in opinion polls, and Labour will be in with a lot more than “half a chance” of winning the next election, whenever it comes.

18. Workman fred

Just to prove my point!

Sunday newspapers suggest that Conservative HQ has purged “right-wingers” from candidates list

I wonder if labour are going to do the same with the left?
I believe so! Looks like everyone is heading for the center.

The above…discussion…notwithstanding, the simple fact is that neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems have an interest in having an election before 2015.

Unless something dramatic happens to the polling figures.

Whether the Lib Dems are officially in government or merely supporting a minority government makes no difference at all because fundamentally you’ll still have a Tory leadership that relies on Lib Dem votes. Just as you have now. The difference would be purely a PR one.

The only scenario in which the coalition would meaningfully break – i.e. we get a new election – would be if the Tories achieve a huge lead in the polls and decide to call an early election. However I can’t see why this would happen, and given that they have promised to stay in power till 2015, it would smack of opportunism.

“And yes, our new leader will probably be Tim Farron.”

Best of luck with that.

Farron comes across really badly whenever he’s interviewed.
His looks and voice make Ed Miliband seem like George Clooney in comparison.

19/neuroskeptic: Whether the Lib Dems are officially in government or merely supporting a minority government makes no difference at all

Confidence and supply rather than coalition would almost certainly mean replacing the various Lib Dem ministers with Conservative ones, though. That’s probably more than just a PR difference, though how much more in practice I’ve no idea.

22. paul barker

Of course if any of you actually believed this drivel you could make pots of money & give it to your Party helping to pay off those enormous debts.

I would like to bet on Labour not surviving till 2015 if I could find a company willing to take the bet.

Still, dream on.

Why the Libdems won’t last in the Coalition until 2015?

Answer –

Because New Labour groupies hope the government will fall apart. Thus, the government will fall apart.


Logical fallacy,- because you hope the coalition falls apart doesn’t mean that you support the labour party.

25. cllr steve radford

It would have been betetr to ioffer a lIb DEm Nat Labour Progressive coalition , even if as we all know Labour would have walked away

This would have ben more politically coherent

Secondly exposed labour

Third would have strengthened the negotiations which on all key issues have given the Tiries all they wanted

Too late Lib Dems have blown it for a decade or more

Are you serious? The rainbow coalition would have been terrible.

a) IIRC it relied upon the SNP (no friends of Labour), Plaid, and (I think) a number of unionist politicians who are more natural allies of the Tories.

b) The Lib Dems would have been crucified in the press for propping up a “discredited” Labour government. Which had been “defeated” in the general election. This “coalition of the losers” would have become unpopular and the Lib Dems would be in the same position as they are now.

c) Large chunks of the Labour party (especially at parliamentary level) would have refused to go along with the coalition. They regarded the renewal of the party out of office as more important than staying in government.

Once the ‘coalition of the losers’ collapsed the Tories would almost certainly have walked the subsequent general election (due to funding and government unpopularity). Result – Tory majority government. (which is better than Tory/Lib-Dem coalition because?)

One thing that everyone should remember, the Tory party won 36% percent of the vote at the General Election – the same as Labour in 2005. The Tories are no more or less legitimate than Labour were before the election.

27. Limiting Factor

Simple truth is that the Liberal Democrats were taken over by a determined whig-liberal cabal and now the fruits of the Clegg Experiment are plain for all to see. One would think that the loss of various sections of the party vote, loss of half the party’s councillors, 2/3rds of the MSPs, and the epic failure of AV, would prompt scores of local parties to demand that Clegg stand down. Yet only the sound of a faint whimper is heard in the land, once you tune out the guffaws from Tory central office.

If the Libdems wait until the 2012 elections, the jig really will be up – another slaughter of councillors will weaken the party so badly that it could take at least a decade to get regain the ability to mount effective countrywide campaigns. We are in the middle of a slow-motion trainwreck – somehow the party must be shocked into realistion of how godawful the situation is, for the country as well as the party.

Ed (26). You’re probably correct in assuming that a rainbow coalition wouldn’t have worked, mainly because of the intransigence of some Labour ex-ministers, but it would have been worth a try. It might have been a more genuine coalition that the present Tory-dominated government. When the idea was being floated in those days after the election, I hoped that with a new Labour leader, a coalition of Labour, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru , the SDLP and Caroline Lucas could have been agreed for just two years, while taxes were raised on the people who caused the banking crisis, and while legislation was passed to bring about proportional representation for future general elections. (I don’t see why a referendum is necessary. There was no referendum to ask us if we wanted FPTP, and no referendum to ask us if we wanted our NHS destroyed by Tory spivs.) PR would have all but ensured that the Tories would never have been able to govern on their own again, and that would have been a worthwhile achievement.

I remember well how the Tory press rubbished the idea of “a coalition of the losers”, yet everyone lost that election, and the Lib Dems (nominally in government) lost it more than Labour (now in opposition). It’s strange how the Tory press don’t seem to mind “a coalition of the losers” – Tories and Lib Dems – running Birmingham City Council, despite the fact that Labour gained 14 seats on 5 May and are easily the largest party there (Labour 55, Tories 39, Lib Dems 24).


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why the Libdems won't last in the Coalition until 2015 http://bit.ly/jD1HsU

  2. Sarah Hacker

    Why the Libdems won't last in the Coalition until 2015 http://bit.ly/jD1HsU

  3. Alex Marsh

    Why the Libdems won't last in the Coalition until 2015 http://bit.ly/jD1HsU

  4. paulstpancras

    Why the Libdems won’t last in the Coalition until 2015 | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/cX6wf9N via @libcon

  5. Chris Paul

    Why the Libdems won’t last in the Coalition until 2015 | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/cX6wf9N via @libcon

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