The overnight polling made bleak reading for the Liberal Democrats but here is my list of the seven things that might, might, might get them back in business by the time of the next General Election…
- Staying the course. As Lord Ashcroft's polling confirmed, the idea that a vote for the Lib Dems is a wasted vote is a leading reason why floating voters hesitate to support them. If Clegg & Co stick at government they'll prove themselves to be a grown up party. They will also show that hung parliaments don't necessarily mean instability for the country. Even in the worst of economic times. This is a big long-term dividend for Britain's third party. Plus, bringing the government down in the middle of the current economic circumstances might not be forgiven by voters.
- Levelling with their supporters. Chris Huhne did it, today, on BBC1's Politics Show. He warned of "a period of immense unpopularity”. The Lib Dem leadership needs to look like it knows what's coming and prepare party members for the worst. Medicine is always more palatable if you think the doctor knows what he's doing. [David Cameron needs to do the same for Tory supporters btw because unpopularity awaits Conservatives, too].
- Delivering growth. As Sir John Major said this morning, the Lib Dems and the Tories will get some credit for clearing up Labour's mess if, by the run up to the 2015 election, growth has returned. The Coalition's great advantage is that the economic cycle looks likely to be in sync with the political cycle. It is also why George Osborne is so important to the success of this government. His first Budget took the tough decisions on cuts, his second budget should take the tough decisions on growth.
- Winning more concessions from Cameron. The most interesting table in Lord Ashcroft's polling was this one. Voters don't think the Lib Dems have made a positive difference in any policy area. As ConHome's stock-take shows, this is simply not true but Cameron, in my Law of the Coalition, will present more high profile gifts to Clegg to try and address this problem. My biggest fear is that, as growth returns, all proceeds will be used to boost spending on Lib Dem state projects rather than introduce economy-boosting tax relief. It's one of the reasons why I argue that the Mainstream Right needs to organise.
- Seize every opportunity to govern with Labour in Scotland, Wales and in local government. Although the Lib Dems will do badly in next May's elections they could form a governing coalition with Scottish Labour. This will send a message to their left-leaning base that they are not biased to the Conservatives but, in the words of Simon Hughes, are, at Westminster, in a "loveless marriage".
- Nick Clegg to resign as Lib Dem leader sometime in 2014. My hunch is that the "Liar Clegg" thing is now stuck in the public imagination. He'll be a huge handicap for his party if he is the leader at the next election but he should stay until 2014 (partly because he can hope things will change) but also because, to change leader now, would mean his successor will get the blame for the many difficult decisions to come. A gracious resignation speech as party leader, twelve or so months before the next election, will revive his own reputation somewhat (resignation speeches always do) but allow his party to choose a leader who isn't connected in the public mind with broken promises and a close relationship with the Conservatives. He could stay as Deputy PM until polling day, again allowing his successor some distance from the government. Five years as Deputy PM is a pretty fine thing for the CV.
- Choose Tim Farron as the next Lib Dem leader. The Lib Dems need someone in the next election debates who is likeable, seen to be open to working with Labour, free of close connection with this government and who voted against tuition fees. Tim Farron, the telegenic new party president, seems the best-placed candidate to me.