Mark Wallace, senior account manager at Portland Communications and author of the Crash! Bang! Wallace blog, says losing the AV referendum would be the least of the Lib Dems' worries
If you asked most people in Westminster to identify the most likely stumbling block for the Coalition, they would point to the AV referendum. It is an issue which cuts both ways – if the people vote Yes, the Conservative leadership will be deeply divided from many of its own backbenchers, but if the people vote No then it will be Nick Clegg facing a crisis amongst his own MPs.
But it may yet prove to be a sideshow, compared to the influence of the local, Scottish and Welsh elections, which are to be held on the same day. It is those ballots which will really be the first public test – for the Coalition as a Government, for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as rival but officially allied parties, and for whoever turns out to be the next Labour Party leader. The AV referendum is getting a lot of attention, which it deserves – after all, this is about how our democracy itself is run. It is of constitutional importance, but I suspect that it is the local and devolved elections which will come to be seen as more important when the history of the Coalition Government is written.
For a start, there is a very real possibility that the Liberal Democrats will be slaughtered in a national swing away from them towards Blue and Red. With their poll ratings already taking a nosedive it seems that – so far at least – the public are taking the view that if you want David Cameron in Number 10 you may as well vote Tory, whilst if you want him sacked then you should vote Labour. Even if the English council elections were to go well for Nick Clegg’s party, there is still huge potential for the Liberal Democrats to be given a bloody nose in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliamentary elections.
The shock defeat of Lembit Opik at the General Election showed the vulnerabilities even of “safe” Lib Dem areas of Wales, whilst in Scotland the near-total absence of Conservative representation leaves the Liberal Democrats as the most obvious target on the shooting range for anyone who dislikes the Coalition. The Emergency Budget added its own keg of gunpowder to this unstable mix by delaying spending cuts in Scotland and Wales until next year, meaning that cuts won’t start to kick in there until a few weeks before the ballot. All of this means that Cowley Street should be approaching the Spring Elections with a hefty dollop of caution, and they must be careful not to get too carried away with the referendum campaign.
If the AV referendum returns a No verdict, then there will be plenty of disappointed Liberal Democrats. However, if they are slaughtered in the local and devolved elections, Nick Clegg’s problem will be much greater. Disappointment over a lost referendum will be as nothing compared to the devastating impact on the morale of MPs in Westminster who feel their seats are at risk, or the loss of a campaigning cohort of councillors and their spouses.
The Lib Dems, I would argue, have most to lose next Spring, but there are risks for David Cameron too. Even if the Conservative campaign was to go well, he would be left with the tricky decision of how to play things. Do you celebrate a victory over your Coalition partners, and risk annoying them? Do you commiserate and play it down, risking annoying your troops on the ground? Do you put your arm round Nick Clegg in front of the cameras and say you stand together, and risk annoying your troops and his, who’ve just spent months fighting each other?
It’s a potential minefield. May 2011 will certainly be the big test for the Coalition, but don’t let the glitz of a referendum distract from the blood-and-guts impact of the elections happening at the same time. Local Government may not have the glamour of a national set-piece, but in this case, it has just as much influence.