“At least we didn’t disappear down the plug hole”, remarked the Liberal Democrat President, Tim Farron the last week after the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election. True, but I fear Liberalism is going doon the stank nevertheless. The Tories came third, but David Cameron was the real winner.
There was very little for the Liberal Democrats to celebrate in ‘Old and Sad’. Had it not been for Tory tactical voting, they wouldn’t have made it even to second place. They lost by 3,500 votes in a seat where the sitting Labour MP had been forced to resign because he lied to the voters, and where Labour’s majority over the LibDem candidate, Elwyn Watkins, was only 103 votes. That’s no kind of success.
Of course you can’t read too much into one very untypical contest, held in the January darkness, but what you can say is beyond doubt is that the Liberal Democrats, always the hostages of the Tory Party, are now utterly dependent upon them. All those disillusioned Labour voters, and all the ‘non-party’ voters who used to flock to the Liberal Democrats as the ‘radical alternative’ have deserted the third party, and they won’t be coming back. In England at least, the LibDems depend now on the generosity shown to them by the Tory leader. And whether Nick Clegg likes it or not, he is now leader of a party of the right.
Actually, I don’t think Clegg is particularly bothered about losing his left-wing credentials. He has embraced neo-conservatisem with alacrity. The Liberal Democrats have signed up to an astonishingly radical reform of the National Health Service in England, that looks like it will end up with large private health care consortia taking over GP practices and competing with NHS providers. The changes will make English health care unrecognisable to anyone working in the Scottish system. But the Liberal Democrats seem unworried. The Rose Garden romance continues.
The Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s, academies and free school programmes in England will create a two tier system and introduce selection by the backdoor. Yes, the Liberal Democrats have won the “pupil premium”, which is supposed to level the playing field between rich and poor families, but the cost is a reform of the comprehensive education system that goes way beyond anything Tony Blair attempted. There there is tuition fees. The Liberal Democrat business secretary, Vince Cable, has hailed the introducing of £9,000 tuition fees in England as “progressive”. He genuinely believes it too. Vince may have been a hero of the left before he entered office, but not any more And of course the Liberal Democrats are fully signed up to the the welfare reform programme and the arbitrary limits being set to housing benefit and disability benefits.
This ideological metamorphosis has upset a lot of Liberal Democrats, particularly Scots like Charles Kennedy. On Question Time on the night of the Oldham result, Kennedy defiantly disowned the party policy on higher education on the not unreasonable grounds that he has fought every election contest since 1983 opposing tuition fees and he sees no reason to stop now. Many Liberal Democrat activists are shell-shocked by the change in their party and are looking for an exit. Labour appals them, but as Ed Miliband – who now has a success under his belt – erases the memory of Tony Blair, I suspect a lot will jump ship. There really is nowhere else to go. This will weaken Clegg even further and drive him into an ever closer relationship with David Cameron. The LibDem leader is all but unelectable now, and there is already speculation that Cameron might find Clegg a sinecure in Europe.
Some unreconstructed Tory MPs are unhappy at this of course. They don’t like the way David Cameron led the half-hearted – or rather quarter-hearted – Tory campaign in the Oldham by-election and are worried about future contests with Liberal Democrats in their own backyard. In many Tory seats in the south of England, Liberal Democrats are the only serious challengers, Some on the Tory Right fear that, if they don’t toe the line, Cameron might hang them out to dry. It could come to that, as Baroness Warsi, the Tory party chairman, made clear in her attack on “right wing Tories” who criticised but didn’t turn out to campaign.
However, this is win-win again for Cameron. He gets the Liberal Democrats to provide cover for the most radical programme of right wing reform since Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 administration government AND he gets to marginalise his internal party critics. It’s hard believe that Cameron actually lost the May general election. Tim Montgomerie of the website Conservative Home argues that the Tories are losing their identity and risk losing any chance of winning outright at the next general election. But that is surely a risk worth taking. For the time being, worried Liberal Democrat MPs will be cosying up to Cameron, hoping that they too will get the Oldham and Saddleworth treatment. Really, the Cameron coalition strategy has been brilliant.
An intriguing situation will now develop in Scotland, where in three months time the Liberal Democrats go into battle with the Tories in the Holyrood election campaign. Will Cameron soft pedal on the Scottish LibDems, as he did in Oldham, or will he go for the jugular? Well, it hardly matters either way. The Scottish Liberal Democrats won’t want to remind Scottish voters that they’re in government with the hated Tories south of the border. Arguably, the best thing that could happen to the Scottish Liberal Democrats is for the Tories to hammer them mercilessly all the way to polling day.
But it will make little difference. The Liberal Democrats will do disastrously in the Scottish election. And in the Welsh parliamentary elections, and they will probably also lose the referendum on AV. They are bumping around at 9% in the UK polls right now. Quite a record. The only thing they’ll have left is their parliamentary seats, and to hold on to those they’ll have to move ever closer still to the Tories. This is the end, I fear, of a long Liberal tradition. Britain will be the worse off for no longer having a radical third party. But I can’t see any way back from this.