Lib Dems’ biggest challenge is not to lose our heads

We have a proud record of achievement to take to the electorate at the next general election

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“I tell you naught for your comfort,

Yea, naught for your desire.

Save that the sky grows darker yet

And the sea rises higher.”

I suspect many Liberal Democrats waking this morning will identify with King Alfred’s speech to his ragged army in GK Chesterton’s epic The Ballad of the White Horse.

We have endured some sombre post-election dawns recently. And this morning is going to be another of them. With the election just a year away, this poses some serious questions for us. But they pose questions for the other parties too.

With Ukip on the stage, can the Tories ever win a majority on their own again? They may hate coalition, but is it now the best the Tories can hope for? By helping Ukip put a European  referendum centre stage, Mr Cameron has now cheerfully taken the viper to his breast. Listen to the Tory voices calling for a pact with Ukip and you can already hear the distant thunder.

True to form, Labour’s answer to its difficulties is an inquiry and another outing for its traditional circular  firing squad.

Mr Farage, of course, is the clear winner in all this. With a clear message, a mostly sure touch and a hotline to the sentiments of a large section of the electorate, he will never again be underestimated.

People are surprised that all the attacks on Ukip backfired or bounced off. They shouldn’t be. It was lazy politics to charge Mr Farage with racism (even if many of his messages appealed to those who are). The real charge is that it is a blast from the past. At a time when Britain is struggling to find its way in a fast-changing world, Ukip’s answer is to return to a “better” (but mythical) yesterday.

So what about the Lib Dems? We have challenges aplenty. But the biggest is not to lose our heads.

If you think this morning is tough, try the European elections of 1989. We came last behind the Greens in every constituency in Britain bar one! The press read the funeral orisons over us – just as they will today. But they were wrong. In the general election that followed we not only re-established ourselves, we laid the foundations for doubling our seats in 1997.

It’s not what has happened in all the elections up to now that matters. It’s what happens next. Now is the moment we have been through all this pain for. The moment when, in the context of a general election, we can take our message to the electorate – a proud one  of achievement in government. 

Andrew Rawnsley recently wrote of the Lib Dems: “For four torrid years, they have displayed a remarkable resilience, an astonishing discipline and an incredible resistance to despair.” Exactly!

Tough though it may be this miserable morning, if we keep our nerve and our unity, there is still everything to play for, and a great message to campaign on through the summer and autumn and right up to the real election next May.

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon is chair of the Lib Dems’ general election campaign

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