And this week’s conference can’t have given them any confidence they will be seeing a breakthrough at the next election.
It seemed doomed from the start. Nick Clegg’s decision to use the phrase “savage cuts” was wrong. Lib Dems are regularly (and arguably rightly) pilloried as trying to be all things to all people. But suddenly we had a leader who seemed to relish being more macho than the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition in his approach to public spending. The problem with the word ‘savage’ is that it doesn’t imply much intelligence. From being leader of a party that straddled the centre he was now the leader proposing indiscriminate cuts.
It wasn’t helped when the sainted Vince Cable announced to delegates, and his colleagues, ideas for a property tax. His reputation was further tarnished by a number of interviews when he didn’t come across as the super-economist his publicity paints.
And (although it might just be that I’m over-sensitive as a Conservative) when it seemed they were as keen to give as much conference time to knocking the Tories as highlighting their own policies you begin to realise that their aspirations of becoming the second party in British politics, or Nick Clegg’s desire to be Prime Minister, are pipe-dreams rather than realistic ambitions.
But the biggest problem they faced this year is that they were never going to be any more than a side-show.
This year the game is between the Conservatives and the Labour Party. And it’s the Labour Party conference that is the main event. David Cameron only needs to put in a competent performance. If he avoids the pitfalls of making policy from the podium and unthinking posturing he will have had a successful conference. We need to continue setting out our stall and outlining what a Conservative Britain will look like, but fireworks aren’t needed.
The fireworks will come next week, as the beleaguered Prime Minister tries to do the impossible and re-assert his authority. The papers are running rumours about resignation on vague ‘health’ grounds and we’ve already had the traditional call for him to go from Charles Clarke and there are going to be plenty more mutterings about the PM’s position in Brighton. If Nick Clegg had a bad week, he can at least take comfort that Gordon Brown is almost certain to have an even worse conference.