For Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems the next year will represent a very delicate (and difficult) balancing act. They will want to do everything possible to distinguish themselves as an independent party without inadvertently closing the door to potential future allies, be it Tory or Labour.
The first part of this strategy will see the Lib Dems ‘shouting from the rooftops’ about their successes in government – from the raising of the income tax threshold to the pupil premium – but also about what they had stopped the Tories from doing – such as inheritance tax cuts and the so-called snoopers’ charter.
We will also see a more vocal distancing between the two coalition partners. This will mean more stage-managed spats or ‘playfights’ as they are increasingly known but also the inevitable unplanned scrap when the gloves are off. And herein lies the need for balance. The Lib Dems need to do everything they can to portray themselves as distinct from, and not puppets of, the Tories without damaging the relationship or moving too far in the other direction.
Behind the scenes senior Lib Dems – including Danny Alexander, David Laws, Lynne Featherstone, Baroness Brinton and Steve Webb – will be preparing for the very real chance of another hung parliament and the prospect of forming a government alongside Labour or the Tories. With both parties instinctively hostile to a coalition, this is no easy task.
Following the inevitable kicking in this month’s European elections some Lib Dems, particularly those on the left, will call for the party to leave the coalition to prevent its distinctive message being drowned out. Yet as a number of commentators have pointed out, Lib Dems have most invested in showing that coalitions can work and that the experiment is worth repeating after 2015.
The Lib Dem leadership is well aware of this. It was a key message in Nick Clegg’s speech at last year’s Lib Dem party conference. As the BBC’s James Lansdale distilled it:
“People said coalition would be rubbish. We have proved them wrong. Lib Dems can handle government. We are fixing the economy. Give us another go to finish the job. We can work with either the Tories or Labour – the choice is up to voters. Lib Dems in coalition would keep either party on the straight and narrow. Coalition is better than one party government.”
In forming government with the Tories the Lib Dems have sacrificed the protest votes that bolstered the party during opposition. But in doing so they have proved their credentials as coalition partner capable of making difficult decisions and of delivering results. If Clegg and his party can get this message out and without upsetting potential future coalition partners (too much), there may yet be cause for celebration next May.
Prediction: With the economy improving Labour have a hill to climb in convincing the electorate that they can do a better job than the Tories. This points to another hung parliament and lengthy coalition negotiations. Either way, come 8 May 2015 the Lib Dems WILL still exist (!).