The next few years could be extremely cheerful for the Liberal Democrats. There has long been a law stating that exhausted Labour administrations are bad for the third party, because people tend to switch to the Tories – their choices polarised. This was true when Margaret Thatcher won in 1979, as it was when Labour fell from power in 1970 and 1951; the Liberals were trounced. But it is not so true now.
Yes, the Lib Dems lost councils and councillors, especially in the South-west, in the face of a Tory attack, and a little bit of flanking action from the Greens – but this was no rout. What's more, there is evidence of an encouraging historic trend: the Lib Dems' long march out of the Celtic fringes to become a truly national party. The Lib Dems have been capable of taking Labour urban strongholds for years: Newcastle, Sheffield, Liverpool, Hull and Cardiff, now Bristol. They held their own in Essex, Leicestershire and Surrey, all a long way from Cornwall or Skye. And they have proved that local strength can be converted into Westminster seats.
So the Lib Dems will return a substantial (even if diminished) phalanx of MPs next time. That increases the chances of a hung parliament, the second bright factor for Lib Dems.
The nation is evidently not much excited by Cameron and Osborne. Cameron, or Brown, or Brown's successor, may well have to turn to the Liberal Democrats for support in a balanced parliament.
Assuming that the next Tory government (if that is what transpires) eventually turns unpopular, the Lib Dems should benefit. Memories of Labour's failures will deter people from returning to them. In which case, Nick Clegg's claim at Prime Minister's Questions will come true: the choice in the general election of 2014 or 2015 really will be between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. The long march continues.Reuse content