Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for a kicking

The Liberal Democrats' rise to power has alienated many of their supporters.
Click to follow
Indy Politics

They should be holding their heads high, proud to be Liberals in power in the first coalition since the Second World War. But, as they return to their constituencies, many Liberal Democrat MPs are dreading their summer holidays.

They're weary of holding the line on the coalition, preferring the bubble of Westminster, where they convince themselves everything is going rather well. Private despondency and anger from both the Tory right and Liberal left are starting to spill into public.

By contrast, Nick Clegg says he is suffering from "Whitehall cabin fever". After 10 weeks in government, he wants to get out and meet real people. Not all of them will be pleased to see him, even in his own party. The Deputy Prime Minister came face to face with the public yesterday in Abingdon Guildhall, an ornate building dating from the 15th century. He invited "vitriol and polemic" and stood accused of standing in the way of good schools, a pensioners' holiday to China and problems with a local weir. Several times he stressed that he was "putting aside short-term interests for the long term". This is the sign of an emerging strategy to deflect attention from the Lib Dems' dire poll ratings – down to just 13 per cent mid-week – which have fallen as the Tories' have risen.

Mr Clegg made only an opaque reference to David Davis's wine bar mockery of the "Brokeback coalition", suggesting a Lib Dem supporter in Oxfordshire "have a word" with the former shadow home secretary. He later said such criticism was based on the "human instinct" to attack anything new.

This is cold comfort to many Lib Dem associations which are still seething after seeing their leaders waltz into power with the Conservative rivals they clashed so angrily with during the election campaign. Sandra Gidley, a former Lib Dem health spokesman who lost her seat on 6 May, warned yesterday that her party would be "toast" if it could not point to real elements of "liberal democracy" in the policy programme. She urged her old colleagues now in government not to repeat the "classic mistake" the party makes when it takes control of councils and quickly "forgets the outside world". Stephen Gilbert, the new MP for St Austell and Newquay, remained loyal to the coalition but admitted MPs must "go out there and talk to the party members".

Few Lib Dems on the left of the party have the appetite for "selling" the Government's programme. Tim Farron, who ran for the party's deputy leadership, spoke for many in Westminster and most among the grass roots when he warned his party was being used as "cover" for the Tories' "toxic" brand. Another put it more bluntly: "You can't trust the fucking Tories."

For a few hours last week the feeling was mutual. Mr Clegg's "slip" when he branded the Iraq war "illegal" at the Dispatch Box brought a slap from No 10 and a withering put-down from the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, who suggested he was there to give the Government's view, not his own.

Some saw the remark as a gaffe, others as an attempt to woo his party's left wing. Mr Clegg told Channel 4 News last night: "This is a debate that will run and run. I feel very strongly about it. My party does. It opposed the decision to go to war. I've always been clear that my personal opinion is that the legal basis was not justified for going into war." He admitted, however, that the coalition Government "doesn't take a view on the legality".

All this and it is still supposed to be the coalition's honeymoon. The former party chairman, Matthew Taylor, who took his seat in the House of Lords last week, said that things will get worse in the long term, with the rise of rebellion from "worried backbenchers who think they are going to lose their seats". "The test will be holding the backbenchers together, and that may be where the Liberal Democrats find it hard both as junior partners and having less history of being in government," he said.

Polling by the Tory donor Lord Ashcroft suggested that of 25 Lib Dem-Tory marginals, the Conservatives would take every one if an election were held now. Lord Taylor said party members fear looking as though the Lib Dems have "sold out" and question if Mr Clegg is "just getting far too far into bed with the Tories".

Lord Taylor, who stood down as MP for Truro and St Austell at the election after 23 years, warned that presenting a united front with David Cameron had risked alienating left-wing activists – who are philosophically closer to Labour and whom Mr Clegg "might not meet in corridors in Westminster".

The Deputy PM went some way to appeasing them yesterday, heaping praise on Sir Menzies Campbell's "outstanding" report into alternatives to Trident. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems' deputy leader, Simon Hughes, is working with Labour MPs to oppose the coalition's crackdown on housing benefit, which includes a 10 per cent cut if the recipient is out of work for a year, and caps claims at £400 for a four-bedroom home. A group of left-wing Lib Dems is also privately lobbying for the Treasury to use the law to cap private rents, in a return to a system in place until the late 1980s.

Lord Taylor said: "Nick Clegg has not done a lot to embrace those people and use language that would help them. It is a communications difficulty. One is a proclamation of independence and one is a proclamation of marriage. A big challenge of the Lib Dem conference is going to be addressing those activists who aren't finding it easy and those who are just nervous about the electoral consequences."

Unfortunately, Mr Clegg will not be there, at least not for all of it. The Cabinet Office quietly announced on its website that he will miss half of his own party conference in September. Instead of giving the keynote leader's speech to round off the annual gathering, he will be representing the UK at the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the UN. Not all Lib Dems are unhappy. "While the big cat's away, the rest of us can play," said one election hopeful who lost to the Tories.

Grass-roots activists have begun to complain that all federal policy committee meetings – which will be crucial to drawing up a distinct programme on which to campaign at the next election – are held in London. Members claim the party risks becoming too London-centric and dominated by those serving in the coalition Government. They see the party conference as an important opportunity to air their concerns.

In Bournemouth last year, Mr Clegg was heckled by opponents of his plan to shelve a promise to scrap tuition fees. To that list he can now add the VAT rise, prison policy, and the compromise electoral reform of the alternative vote, which few Lib Dems favour.

At the first joint political cabinet meeting of the coalition on Friday, the Conservatives appeared to ride to the Lib Dems' rescue by agreeing a new strategy to head off Labour attacks on the junior government partner. Labour leadership front-runner David Miliband intends to circumvent Lib Dems in Westminster to speak directly to disgruntled supporters. "We have got to understand what they wanted when they voted Lib Dem and show that they can find a home in the Labour Party," he said. Ed Balls's campaign team favours a "hug a Lib Dem" strategy to drive a wedge between Team Clegg and his MPs. In at least one case this has included a semi-serious invitation to one unhappy Lib Dem to defect and return to the opposition benches.

With MPs spending five weeks away from Westminster, and given the rarely iron-like grip of Lib Dem whips, the potential for splits is clear. Barely half of Lib Dem voters say they "approve" of what the coalition has done to date, compared to more than 85 per cent of Tories. The Conservative lead over the Lib Dems has widened from 13 per cent at the election to more than 30 points in recent days. The proportion of voters who think Mr Clegg is doing badly has doubled since mid-May.

The third party was once mocked for going home to prepare for power. Now they have got it, some Lib Dems could not be more miserable. Now is their summer of discontent.

Reasons to be miserable


The first big test of the coalition came when George Osborne announced a rise to 20 per cent from January next year. Bob Russell and Mike Hancock voted against; others abstained.

Housing benefit

Totemic for Lib Dems who made their name campaigning for the poor, fearing cuts will leave families homeless.

Tuition fees

Lib Dem grass-roots members were furious when the party dropped plans to scrap the fees. Coalition partners can't seem to agree over a graduate tax.

Voting reform

No Lib Dem really wants the alternative vote, which is not proportional. No Tory wants an end to first past the post. But is a "yes" vote needed in the referendum to hold the coalition together?


Division over the "illegal" invasion runs deep. Clegg's comment might have been a swipe at Labour, but could also be aimed at Tories.

Rebels and loyalists

Unhappy to be in bed with the Tories:

Tim Farron

Cumbrian MP popular with grass roots. Branded tuition fees a "poll tax" for students, and claimed Lib Dems were cover for "toxic" Tories.

Charles Kennedy

Former Lib Dem leader refused to back the coalition deal and has been in self-imposed exile ever since. Is said to be "brooding".

Andrew George

Independent-minded Cornishman has struggled to cosy up to his Conservative colleagues. Led early opposition to the VAT rise to 20 per cent.

Simon Hughes

Deputy leader has made clear his intention to be a voice of the party left. Demanded a Lib Dem spokesman on all areas of government.

Vince Cable

Admits to "emotional difficulties" on working with the Conservatives. Had his graduate tax plan briefed against by Tory spinners.

All is rosy in the Lib Dem garden:

Tom Brake

Issued a party press release welcoming Nick Clegg's closure of Yarl's Wood immigration centre, most of which is staying open.

Jeremy Browne

Once asked by George Osborne to defect to the Tories. The minister of state at the Foreign Office has taken to government like a duck to water.

Danny Alexander

Thrown in at the Treasury deep end when David Laws quit as Chief Secretary. Saw off criticism that he was not up to the job and took flak for billions in cuts.

Nick Harvey

After shadowing the MoD, the North Devon MP stands shoulder to shoulder with Tory Defence Secretary Liam Fox on the need for a forces overhaul.

Paddy Ashdown

Admitted that he would have preferred to see a deal done with Labour, but is now seeing his dream of Lib Dems around the cabinet table become reality.

Summer break: Holiday at home, Cameron tells Britain

Just when you thought it was safe to take a break, the Government now wants to tell you where to go on holiday. As MPs prepare for their long summer break after Parliament rises on Tuesday, David Cameron is pushing a new target that 50p in every Briton's holiday pound should be spent at home. The PM says he is "leading by example" by taking the Cameron clan to Cornwall to introduce his children "to some of the spots I spent my childhood at". Not all politicians are following his lead.

* David Miliband is heading to Northumberland, putting as much distance as possible between him and his brother and leadership rival Ed, who is Cornwall-bound.

* As if to ensure that 50 per cent of the coalition's holiday spending goes overseas – in line with the new target – Lib Dem deputy PM Nick Clegg will be joining his in-laws at the home village of his Spanish wife, Miriam.

* Culture Secretary and new father Jeremy Hunt is splitting his time between home and abroad, with a family break planned for Salcombe, Devon, and a separate trip to France.

* But tourism minister John Penrose, Tory MP for the seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare, is heading to Disneyland in Paris – fulfilling a promise made to his family during the election campaign, long before being told he was to be responsible for the domestic tourism industry.