This autumn, Nick Clegg will become the first Liberal leader to address his conference as a member of a peace-time cabinet since the 1930s. Quite a moment. Power at last. Not since David Lloyd George have they enjoyed such success. When Clegg walks to the podium and is introduced as "Deputy Prime Minister", the usually bovine gathering of activists will probably explode into a tear-soaked reprise of early Beatlemania, replete with "Nick, I Love You" banners and underwear being hurled at the stage. The St John Ambulance brigade would be well advised to boost its presence at the Lib Dems' Liverpool gig, and to have extra defibrillators standing by.
As it happens, Mr Clegg will be so busy helping to run the country when David Cameron is away on paternity leave that he will, sadly, miss part of the Lib Dems' annual get-together. No matter. The party will also hear from its Secretaries of State for the Environment, Business and Scotland, and its Chief Secretary to the Treasury, as well as its ministers for the armed forces, pensions and much else – a Lib Dem spy being stationed in every departmental cab nowadays.
For now, at any rate, the party is prepared to follow its leaders. To use an expression popularised by a previous Liberal leader, they are in "wait and see" mode. In any case, the ovations will be long, loud and overwhelmingly sincere, defiant even. Instead of the usual tepid slogans you get festooned across the stage, this year's Lib Dem conference ought to have the single- word slogan "Swivel!" up there instead, with a raised middle-finger motif, the riposte to decades of ridicule from an unsympathetic media. When one of Clegg's predecessors, David Steel, got carried away with the success of the SDP-Liberal Alliance way back in 1981, he was mocked for telling his party to "go back to your constituencies and prepare for government". Now Nick Clegg can be forgiven for telling his followers to go back to their constituencies and get on with government.
And yet ... there are doubts. For it remains essentially a marriage of convenience. Not values. The Liberal Democrats are progressive; the Tories are not. David Davis's recent quip that the Con-Lib Government is a "Brokeback" coalition was a good joke because it spoke to a certain uneasy truth, felt in both the Tory and the Liberal Democrat parties. For there is a sizeable, and increasingly voluble, minority on both wings of this unlikely coalition who believe that the other side is getting more out of it than they are, and that the infatuation that Dave/Nick feel for each other is blinding them to the political damage they are inflicting on the country, or their party, or both. Nick may well have been feeling an unfamiliar attraction towards Tory ideas about public-spending cuts and a smaller state, just as David has experimented with a traditionally Liberal civil-liberties agenda, but that just makes their followers even more anxious.
For the Lib Dems the feeling was put most succinctly by Sandra Gidley, who mislaid Romsey at the general election, who predicted that the Liberal Democrats will be "toast" at the next election if they don't stop being a front for Tory cuts and remember what they are in politics for.
Now you might well say that being attacked by the "purist" wings of both parties means the coalition must be getting something right. After all, the critics can't all be right, can they? Can the Conservatives be taking those naïve Lib Dems for a ride while the Lib Dems are simultaneously exploiting the innocent Tories for their own narrow political ends? Surely this just proves that the coalition is in fact making what you might call "tough compromises" in the national interest. As Nick Clegg indicated on his Alan Partridge-esque "Meet Nick Clegg ... " tour of Britain, in this broadest of broad churches there is bound to be dissent.
In truth, both sides have tried to exploit t'other, just as you'd expect. This is politics, after all, and Nick and David haven't reinvented it, however sincere their mutual regard. In case no one has noticed, most Liberal Democrats have spent most of the past few decades fighting the Conservatives. They were (are?) the traditional enemy, and the Lib Dems effectively provided a block on Cameron gaining an overall majority as the Labour vote crumbled. The only reason there is a coalition now is because the Lib Dems stopped the Tories getting a majority – and that electoral conundrum lies at the heart of this Lib Dem strategic dilemma.
The problem, of course, was that Clegg couldn't have kept Labour in power even if he'd wanted to, which he didn't. Gordon Brown obviously had to go, but Labour's showing was so disastrous that a deal under any leader was unthinkable.
Well, we are where we are, but the grumbling in both parties about the deal won't be enough to make it fall apart. Thus far, the Lib Dems can point to some real achievements that would not have been there if the Tories had secured a tiny majority, including a referendum on limited electoral reform and progress on taking those on less than £10,000 a year out of income tax. But might those concessions have anyway been forced if there had been a minority Tory government that the Lib Dems could have pushed with threat of a Commons defeat?
The Lib Dems will soon be in the very unfamiliar position of being the subject of protest votes rather than the beneficiaries. Local elections, European elections and by-elections over the next few years will be disastrous for both parties as the public-spending cuts take hold. The Lib Dems conference will pass awkward, sometimes devastating resolutions. The public-spending cuts – up to 40 per cent in some departments – are aimed like an Exocet missile at the Lib Dem membership and supporters. Councillors represent an unusually strong lobby group within the Lib Dems, a legacy of community politics and the days when the party boasted a dozen MPs. The liberal, public-sector professions are well represented in its ranks. It is difficult to see them remaining quiescent under the onslaught that George Osborne has planned for them, even if Danny Alexander is doing the groundwork. A cut is a cut whether the guy wielding the axe is wielding a yellow or a blue rosette.
But the coalition will probably survive all that simply because neither party has anywhere else to go. Even if they hadn't fiddled the parliamentary rules to ensure they cannot lose a vote of confidence, they know that if they go to the country in (say) 2013, they will both be slaughtered. They will cling together for dear life until the recovery and political revival arrive by 2015. At that point that they will have what Alastair Campbell says every political party needs: "a narrative".
But that could be the beginning of the Lib Dems' problems. For by the end of the period, the very obvious thing to do is to vote Tory. For five years, the party will have had to filter its messages through a Tory prism – witness the recent rubbishing by Numbers 10 and 11 of Nick Clegg's assertion that the Iraq war was illegal and Vince Cable's ideas on a graduate tax and bank reform. Already the party is reduced to 13 per cent in the polls, and without the usual media profile, the prospects for voicing a distinctive view are minimal. Putting country before party may mean annihilation.
If people voted Lib Dem to keep the Tories out in so many Lib Dem seats last time, then how will they vote next time? Or if people support the coalition, do they vote for a Tory or a Lib Dem candidate? Will the Lib Dems and the Tories invite the country to vote for another term of Clegg-Cameron? Or will Clegg declare himself a bit of a tart, ready to do a deal with Labour if needs be? Who would believe that they would, or should, deal with Labour after five years of cooperation with the Tories? It is simply not credible. Indeed it would actually suit Labour best if Labour themselves said that they had no intention of doing any grubby deals with Clegg and his gang of "Transformers – Tories in disguise" (they would make for amusing posters). Such a Labour attack really would undermine the Lib Dems' case as an anti-Tory force, leaving them with no option but to work with the Tories again, but this time very much on Tory terms.
The alternative vote – if it is delivered – will blunt but not dissolve those dilemmas. The logic of the next few years, the habit of working together, and the inevitable merging of identities will all mean that the two parties will be increasingly indistinguishable, despite strenuous efforts to prove otherwise.
What, people are asking, is the point of the Liberal Democrats? If the Tories gain a few more seats and an overall majority at the 2015 election, then the Lib Dems become entirely optional to the exercise; they will increasingly become prisoners of the Tories, there at their invitation rather than having much real-world bargaining power. And if Cameron were to be supplanted by a less Lib Dem-friendly leader, things could turn barren indeed. The chances of springboarding from the alternative vote to proper full-blown PR in such circumstances would be zero.
What happens if the Tories are tempted to offer some of their favourite Lib Dems a deal on seats? The party's leading personalities wind up as Tory hostages. A broader seats carve-up means an effective Lib-Con merger. Having narrowly escaped the Lib-Lab merger dreamed of by Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair, which at least had some ideological, progressive values to build on, the Lib Dems would find themselves stuck in an abusive marriage with the Tories, mental cruelty and all.
For students of history it is a wearyingly familiar pattern, and for Liberal students of history it is depressing. Whenever the Liberals, or a faction of them, have done a deal with the Tories and entered coalition with them they have been absorbed by the larger partner. In the 1930s, well-meaning and sincere Liberals joined a National Government, along with rebel Labour elements including the then party leader Ramsay MacDonald. Labour, eventually, emerged from that betrayal, but the Liberals split three ways, into "Simonites" (following Sir John Simon, pro-Tory), "Samuelites" (following Sir Herbert Samuel, less pro-Tory) and Lloyd Georgeites (a family group of four MPs, following the old goat himself). This obscure history lesson is only worth mentioning because it demonstrates the irrelevance of the broken Liberals to politics even of that time. After the First World War there was a similar arrangement, the "coupon" bestowed on coalition-approved Conservative and Liberal candidates, and that split the Libs between the followers of Lloyd George and Asquith, which effectively allowed Labour to emerge as the main anti-Tory party, though always vainly struggling to get a majority. Before that, in the late Victorian era, the Liberal Unionists, who opposed Irish home rule, were also gobbled up by the Tories. Not to mention the SDP-Liberal Alliance split of 1989. The Liberals, in other words, are almost as prone to splitting as the neo-Nazis and the far left. From those historical debacles the Liberals took until the 1990s to recover. They will survive again, but it may take a long long time to recuperate from their brush with power. As in the past, the façade of power and pomp may hide a much deeper, near-terminal malaise. The strange death of Liberal England after the Edwardian era seemed inexplicable to many; a century on, it is less difficult to explain, and less forgivable too.