David Callaghan is a former Liberal Democrat councillor in the London Borough of Sutton and parliamentary candidate. He works as a freelance journalist for ConservativeHome.
When the Liberal Democrats joined the Coalition Government in 2010 they were back in the big time, with their first ministers in 65 years. Leader Nick Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister after his parliamentary colleagues and wider party overwhelmingly backed the coalition.
There was great excitement within the party, and I experienced this as a Lib Dem councillor and a parliamentary candidate in the general election, that the Tories had given far more ground than expected in the Coalition Agreement. Some Lib Dems could not believe that so many of the party’s manifesto policies made it into the agreement.
There were policies in the agreement on education such as the pupil premium, and on tax like an increase in the personal allowance, that enticed the Lib Dems into thinking ‘wow, we are actually going to put these policies into practice’.
Perhaps the most significant inclusion from the Lib Dems’ point of view was the promise of a referendum on electoral reform. The possibility of a system based on something other than first-past-the-post was the holy grail for Lib Dems, who were used to settling for a meagre number of MPs much lower than their share of the vote deserved.
One notable dissenter though to this historic new government was former leader Charles Kennedy, who saw some of the pitfalls and preferred ‘a confidence and supply’ deal to prop up a minority Conservative administration. Kennedy’s misgivings should have set alarm bells ringing in the party hierarchy and made the leadership think twice.
But at that point the party was being swept along by the hysteria created by the sweet scent of power, and the opportunity to see some policies implemented for the first time in living memory. Any talk of caution was quickly dismissed as party stalwarts, including influential former leader Paddy Ashdown, said the coalition was in the national interest and necessary.
This euphoria was to turn sour though within months as the blame for a trebling in tuition fees landed squarely on the heads of Lib Dem MPs who had signed a pledge not to increase them. Student protests were aimed at the government and more specifically the Lib Dems who were accused of ‘selling out’. Assurances from deputy leader Vince Cable that universities would not increase fees to the maximum of £9,000 per year proved to be based on wishful thinking.
There was also a backlash against the austerity measures, including cuts to welfare and local government, which was to prove damaging for the Lib Dems.
Clegg has admitted the party should have been more assertive in the early days of government, standing up to the Tories. He and his colleagues were stronger in their positioning later in the coalition, vetoing parliamentary boundary changes, for example, in retaliation to Conservative-led opposition against House of Lords reform.
The general election of 2015 was to be a catastrophic event for the party that it still hasn’t recovered from. It was slaughtered, losing most of its MPs, including Cable, as it was punished for five years of coalition and the tuition fees debacle. Clegg held onto his seat, but resigned as leader with his party on its knees.
Were the Lib Dem policies on education and tax big vote winners, and did the party get the credit anyway? The Conservatives made a point of claiming responsibility for the lightening of the tax burden, which was the one policy that might have a made a real difference at the polls.
The 2011 referendum on voting reform had proved to be a damp squib with a turnout of only 42%, and a decisive vote against change. The pro-reform campaign was characterised by splits and a lack of clarity over the benefits of any overhaul of the voting system. The referendum itself has largely been forgotten, as it is completely over-shadowed by the earthquake ballot on the EU.
By contrast to the plight of the Lib Dems, the Conservatives won a surprise majority in 2015 under David Cameron, and gleefully formed a new government without the need for a partner. The Tories have won subsequent polls in 2017, albeit without a majority, and then decisively last year. There does not appear to have been a political price for the Tories from austerity in the way it has hit the Lib Dems.
Most importantly, the Conservatives have got it right on Brexit since the referendum. Yes Theresa May’s agreement wasn’t approved by resistant MPs, but ultimately the party was rewarded for honouring the 2016 EU referendum result and promising to ‘Get Brexit Done’. Swathes of Labour voters switched to the Conservatives in December’s general election, and the Lib Dems faced another bad result, making no progress and losing their leader Jo Swinson.
A few months earlier the Lib Dems had voted to drop their policy of a second referendum and actually revoke Article 50, therefore reversing Brexit. Buoyed by a strong performance in May’s European elections, the party seemed to get carried away, especially as it attracted some high profile defections from other parties. In an attempt to gather all the Remain voters under its banner, it said it would win power and stop Brexit.
Brexit, like tuition fees, has proved to be a landmark in the party’s history. It achieved power in a coalition, but paid a very dear price, and is now reeling from another disaster of its own making.
Ten years on from the coalition launch, Sir Ed Davey is doing his best as interim leader to keep the party’s head above water, but it is struggling to be heard as the country grapples with the Coronavirus emergency. With only 11 MPs, the Lib Dems are a long way from the heady days of 2010 when they boasted 57 and were the government kingmakers.
There has been a series of strategic mistakes and a lack of understanding of what happened. The party got it badly wrong over tuition fees, and the MPs should take a large share of the blame for this after insisting the pledge of ‘no increase’ stay in the 2010 manifesto despite the misgivings of Clegg and Cable.
On Brexit, the party has misjudged the mood in many parts of the country, where even Remainers like myself, wanted the result of the referendum to be delivered.
A future direction for the Lib Dems is now unclear and they must learn from these mistakes over the last 10 years, which have left them on the sidelines, miles from power. They have been defeated on the big debate of the day with Brexit, after finding themselves on the losing side of the argument. Now perhaps they have to remodel as the party of ‘Return’ to the EU, but will this be tenable as the country moves firmly in the other direction? A series of false starts leave the party with an uncertain future.