With every passing day, one conclusion becomes steadily more inescapable. The Conservatives have been lucky to govern in coalition.
This will strike many readers as absurd. Just after the election, I certainly did not feel that the Tories had been lucky. Thirteen years – including three years of Gordon Brown - and we still could not win outright. Whether it was the party or the people - or both – there had been a serious let-down. Back then, the overwhelming majority of Tories felt like that. A fair few still do. They were and are wrong.
Consider what would have happened if the Conservatives had won by twenty or thirty. In Opposition, the Liberals would have assailed every reform, every cut, which they have supported in government. They would have had an advantage. Vince Cable has it in him to be a front-rank Opposition politician. He is a first-class destructive debater. With him as the attack dog and Nick Clegg doing the high-minded stuff, the Liberals would have been formidable. Dr Cable would have excoriated the Tories as the lackeys of greedy, corrupt and incompetent bankers. While Labour advanced in the North and the Midlands, the Liberals would have been gobbling up the South. By now, the Conservatives would have been third in the polls, and apparently stuck there. As it is, the Coalition enhances the government's authority in hard times. It also means that the Oppostion's principal weapons are Ed Balls's charm and Ed Milband's effectiveness.
Many Tories who cannot stomach the coalition base their case on Europe and the freedom of manoeuvre which a solely Conservative government would have enjoyed. That too is an illusion. It is true that a Tory government could have demanded a renegotiation. But what would the other 26 have said? Even if renegotiation had been allowed on to the agenda, many of the others would have had their wish-list, so there would have been the prospect of endless trade-offs. The probable outcome would have been chaos – and resentment. No-one would have been in a giving mood. A large segment of French official opinion would have been delighted. Still nostalgic for the days when the EU was a French jockey on a German horse, they would rather we departed. They also fiercely resent the one common European policy which is working: the common European language, which is English. If we left, perhaps Francophonie would reassert itself.
"If we left"; if only, many Tories would reply. So what would then happen to our trade with Europe and our levels of inward investment, much of it dependent on access to the European market? Is it likely that the others would be happy for London to retain its position as Europe's leading financial centre? There is an enormous contradiction at the heart of the quitters' case. "We dislike the EU so much that we want to leave – but we trust the EU so much that we could rely on it to play fair, once we had left". Does this mean that there is nothing that we can do to assert British interests? No, but it does mean that we have to wait, perhaps until the chronic crisis in the Eurozone becomes acute. That is taking no longer than many of us thought, and hoped.
In the latest Spectator, there is an excellent and depressing article by Dan Hannan on the refusal of the Spanish political elite to see sense on Europe. How can it be that a country which is produicng better and better wine while keeping the bunny-huggers at bay on bull-fighting could be so blind to its own interests? The answer lies, alas in Don Quixote. But his fantasies were at least chivalric, and the only person he really damaged was himelf. His fantasising, windmill-titling descendants have created 25 percent unemployment while threatening social stability. The EU is much the most dangerous of all the hallucinogenic drugs. In the meantime, there is no alternative for us Brits, except to act as a combination of Quintus Fabius Cunctator and Sancho Panza.
There will come a time to give battle. If there were an early implosion of the Euro, that would be an almighty problem for the Liberal Democrats. Their instincts would be to help save the single currency: the Tories', to exploit its collapse. We know which would be the more popular stance. But even if the Euro staggered on, the Liberals would still have to choose between their deeply Europhile political instincts, and the voters'. In the normal course of events, the two Coalition parties would try to choreograph an amicable divorce in late 2014, so that while each of them claimed its share of the credit for the coalition's achievements, they could both establish a distinct identity before the Election. For the Tories, that should be easy. While paying tribute to their Liberal partners, they would play up the divergences on Europe. How do the Liberals respond: truth, or obfuscation?
There is an irony. Like most wise Tories, David Cameron is fully aware of the destructive potential of the European question. Even voters who approve of the Tories' views on Europe are suspicious of our tendency to become a single-issue party. In pursuit of harmony and unity, Mr Cameron has always wanted to keep the EU out of the headlines. But it always elbows its way back. At the next Election, that may help the Tories to capture a lot of Liberal seats. If the Liberals wish to avoid that fate, there is only one possible escape-route. They must find a polcy initiative which is popular, sensible and not too expensive. But there is a difficulty. That appears to be beyond them. There is only one solution. Fresh from his success with the "Leaving the Euro" prize, Simon Wolfson should offer another one: "Sensible and Popular Liberalism". It would not be easy to win.