The Big Question: Have the Liberal Democrats missed their historic opportunity?

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Indy Politics

Why are we asking the question now?

The most recent polls suggest that support for the Liberal Democrats is slipping, despite the various problems faced by the two bigger parties. One poll published shortly before Christmas gave the Conservatives an eight-point lead, an increase in support apparently directly linked to a decline in backing for the Lib Dems. It follows an erratic year in the polls, by-elections and local elections. On some occasions the Lib Dems performed astonishingly well, but few of their supporters would claim they are on the verge of a historic breakthrough on the basis of the polls. Instead they must be wondering what they have done wrong and what they need to do in the coming 12 months to make more waves.

So what have they done wrong?

Their year began traumatically with the removal of Charles Kennedy and the various sexual revelations in relation to other senior figures in the party. They looked more like a wild soap opera than a serious political force. Since then they have calmed down, but in some ways they are now too calm.

The new leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, began nervously and can still appear awkward in his public appearances. This is odd. Sir Menzies punched above his weight as the party's foreign affairs spokesman. He deserved much of the credit for the forensically impressive approach the party took in its opposition to the war against Iraq. Then he became leader and started to punch below his weight. The Lib Dems also faced David Cameron who stole some of their distinctive clothes. Cameron has made the running on green issues and to some extent on civil liberties over the last year. For the first time since 1997 the Lib Dems are confronted with a Conservative leader determined to target their support.

It all the fault of Menzies Campbell?

No. He has made some significant changes to the party machine, which runs more efficiently after the chaotic leadership of Charles Kennedy. In policy terms the Lib Dems are ahead of the other parties under his leadership. They have detailed proposals for the introduction of green taxes as well as cuts in income tax. These policies were well received in the media and by authoritative bodies such as the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

In addition Sir Menzies gives a range of interviews on every available media outlet. He is more energetic than his predecessor.

Yet few seem to notice. He speaks out against the war and its disastrous aftermath with a determined persistence. Few report his comments. The Lib Dems are suffering once more from appearing to be marginal.

The media is more interested in the forthcoming battle between Gordon Brown and David Cameron, and in the dying days of Blair. Paddy Ashdown overcame the indifference by forming close ties with Blair. He made the Lib Dems seem more important than they really were. Charles Kennedy attracted attention by conveying a whiff of enigmatic celebrity. Sir Ming must find his own distinctive way of raising his profile. If he fails to do so his party is in deep trouble.

Was a historic breakthrough really on the cards?

Some argue that their opposition to the war gave them a unique political opportunity at the last election and beyond.

In 2005 the Tories could make no headway over the Iraq catastrophe because they were more supportive of the war than Labour. Only the Lib Dems could credibly seek support from voters on the basis of their opposition. Yet they failed to make much of Iraq during the campaign. There was more focus on their domestic programme, an agenda that even its leader, Kennedy, had clearly not fully mastered.

Since the election the situation in Iraq has worsened still. Again the Lib Dems have distinctive political space but they make few waves. Yet this brutal assessment is fairly narrow.

Labour fought the election in the context of a rosy economic situation. The Tories were more professional under Michael Howard. It was not as easy as it seemed for the third party. What is more the Lib Dems did make some gains. They have their biggest parliamentary party since the era when they were winning general elections at the beginning of the last century. Perhaps they did as well as could be expected under an electoral system that benefits the two bigger parties.

Have they missed the big chance for good?

There are two reasons why they cannot be written off. They have a more talented parliamentary team with quite a few bright and telegenic younger MPs. The home affairs spokesman, Nick Clegg, is seen as a rising star. David Laws, Chris Huhne and Vince Cable have all established a political presence on the scene. Sometimes they come across as a bunch of chaotic amateurs, but there is more political talent in their ranks than in the past.

But even if they do badly at the next election they could perversely make their historic breakthrough. Many pundits predict a hung parliament. The Lib Dems could lose half their seats and have more power than they have wielded for decades. Early indications suggest that they would not seek to join a coalition with either of the other parties. But even the prospect of a hung parliament will make them suddenly become important as the next election moves into view.

Well, which party would they back?

Sir Ming has described himself as a centre-left leader. He is also close to Gordon Brown. Most of his party would place themselves on the centre left as well. But it would not be easy for the Lib Dems to prop up a Labour government that had lost its majority. And much of its membership would be uneasy about an alliance with the Tories. No wonder they insist they will not join a formal coalition with anyone.

Could the Lib Dems change their leader?

They are capable of being ruthless as they demonstrated, with the removal of Kennedy. The next year will be a big test for Sir Ming with local elections and parliamentary polls in Scotland, where the Lib Dems are part of the ruling coalition. He will need to show that he is making more waves.

But after the trauma of the Kennedy affair the party will be very wary of striking twice. Unless Sir Ming decides to give up of his own volition, he will lead them into the next election, the one that oddly might give them the historic breakthrough they failed to make in 2005.

Do the Liberal Democrats stand a chance at the next election?

Yes...

* The polls suggest they retain a solid core of support

* The next election will be their big moment, when a hung parliament is likely

* Campbell is sorting out the party and bringing on a talented parliamentary team

No...

* Polls are bad, suggesting that they are losing support to the Tories

* Their big moment was at the 2005 election, when they should have made more of their opposition to Iraq

* They got rid of the hopeless Kennedy and replaced him with the more inept Campbell

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