Normally, a party that was down in the polls and on course to lose around a third of its parliamentary seats would be in a grim mood, with the leader under pressure. But we don’t live in normal times; we live in coalition times. So, the Liberal Democrats have just had a remarkably chipper conference thanks to their belief that there’ll be another hung parliament. This, they calculate, will ensure that they get another five years in government. Nick Clegg’s speech today — and its confidence — was predicated on this assumption.
There is a danger for the Liberal Democrats that the public rebel against the idea that a party that loses seats and votes and comes third should carry on in government. But the Liberal Democrats calculate that the quarter of the electorate that might actually vote for them, their ‘market’, wants to hear about coalitions, and which deals they might strike.
Today, Clegg rattled off the most comprehensive list yet of things he’d stopped the Tories from doing. I suspect that a fair few of these measures command popular support. But what interests Clegg is what his ‘market’ thinks of these ideas. The Lib Dem leader is, in electoral terms, now thinking only about this quarter of the electorate.
The Clegg strategy is to present the Liberal Democrats as a moderating force on both parties. His message at the next election will be, if you’re not sure about the other parties vote for us and we’ll keep them on the straight and narrow.
But there is a danger for them in beginning to talk about coalition deals now, 20 months before the next election. Clegg boasted that he’d stopped the Tories ditching the Human Rights Act. This invites the question, would you block the Tories from doing that in another coalition? If the parties start answering these questions, they could make any future coalition negotiation impossible.
I doubt that this speech will live long in the memory. But what it did do is set out the message that Clegg wants his party to take to the country over the next 20 months. In that respect, it succeeded.