Cast your mind back four years to the Downing Street rose garden - the honeymoon of Nick and Dave, and the Lib Dems in power for the first time, depending on how you count it, since 1945, 1922 or 1915. Anyway, it was historic.
This morning they’re historic for another reason – they just polled a mere 0.9 per cent in the Rochester and Strood by-election - the worst-ever result in a by-election for a major party.
Back in 2010, the Lib Dems knew what they were in for, and they soberly entered into their marriage realising there would be some damage. They knew the tuition fees would shred their reputation among students, a very important constituency and one that was symbolised in that brief moment of Cleggmania in the 2010 campaign. They knew the cuts more generally would hurt them in elections. They expected the compromises of power and complications of Government to damage them short-term. They were ready.
But they also hoped that, in time, as the recovery arrived and memories of the tuition fees fiasco faded they would be rehabilitated. They would be seen to have acted in the national interest. They would be credited with rising living standards. People would see that it was they who pushed for the lower-paid – under £10,000 a year – to come out of income tax, a central achievement. They hope, if not to be forgiven, then at least to earn some understanding.
Seems not. The Conservatives are hogging the economic story, and the Lib Dems are increasingly marginalised. The media are interested in the two main parties, with the SNP and Ukip providing the excitement. Even the Greens are muscling in, and in Rochester duly beat the Lib Dems, who didn't come far ahead of the Raving Loonies.
In pictures: Rochester by-election
In pictures: Rochester by-election
1/15 Rochester by-election
Counting gets under way for the Rochester and Strood constituency by-election held at Medway Park, Gillingham, Kent
2/15 Rochester by-election
Nigel Farage and members of the UKIP team celebrate after Mark Reckless won the Rochester and Strood by-election at Medway Park, Gillingham near Rochester, Kent
3/15 Rochester by-election
Howling Laud Hope, leader of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party (R) awaits for the by election results in Medway, Gillingham Rochester, Kent
4/15 Rochester by-election
Kelly Tolhurst, the Conservative Party's candidate in the Rochester's by-election, walks down the town's high street on polling day, in southern England
5/15 Rochester by-election
Gulpreet Baines (18) sets fire to a United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) rosette, on polling day in Rochester's by-election
6/15 Rochester by-election
Naushabah Khan, Labour Candidate for the Rochester and Strood by-election is joined by shadow transport secretary Michael Dugher in Rochester on the final day of campaigning ahead of by-election
7/15 Rochester by-election
UKIP supporter Graham Harper and his dog Roquie carry a electoral poster supporting UK Independence Party (UKIP) parliamentary candidate Mark Reckless in Rochester, Kent ahead of the by-election poll
8/15 Rochester by-election
A customer poll of sweets purchased in favour of the party's contesting the Rochester and Strood by-elecction on display in the Sweet Expectations Sweet Shop in Rochester, Kent, on the final day of campaigning before the by-election later this week
9/15 Rochester by-election
David Cameron and Conservative Party candidate for Rochester and Strood, Kelly Tolhurst, talk to Mick Parks, Workshop Foreman at MCL Mechanical near Rochester, Kent, southern England, during a visit ahead of the by-election
10/15 Rochester by-election
People stand holding placards against the Britain First party who held a march in Rochester, southeastern England
11/15 Rochester by-election
Britain First march through Rochester
12/15 Rochester by-election
UKIP parliamentary candidate Mark Reckless campaigns in Rochester on November 4, 2014
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
13/15 Rochester by-election
Ed Miliband campaigns with Yvette Cooper (left) and Naushabah Khan before the Rochester and Strood by-election
Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images
14/15 Rochester by-election
The Britain First march was met by vociferous counter protest
15/15 Rochester by-election
A UKIP office in Rochester. Rochester and Strood will hold a by-election on November 20th following the defection of Conservative Party Member of Parliament, Mark Reckless to UKIP
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
This miserable showing was obviously untypical; it was a classic by-election squeeze, of the type the Lib Dems used to enjoy engineering. The seat wasn’t their usual promising territory, but there was a time when the Lib Dems could realistically dream of taking this sort of seat. Even discounting all the mitigating circumstances it still suggests a meltdown next year, far worse than anything the party has contemplated since 2010.
There is an alternative history, a sort of Charlie Kennedy one. Had Mr Kennedy not fallen from grace, his instinct, I suspect, would have been a “confidence and supply” agreement with the Tories after the hung parliament of 2010. That would have enabled him to still play the populist and win lots of protest votes of the type Ukip and the SNP are garnering now. Tuition fees would not have happened, or if it had the Lib Dems would not be blamed for them.
At the election, which probably would have come sooner rather than later, and certainly earlier than next May, the Lib Dems would have made more gains, including at the expense of Labour. They would have been a really strong, almost equal partner in any fresh coalition, and probably with Labour, more ideologically palatable, and psephelogically logical partners than the Tories (the Lib Dems traditional enemy and the people they have to beat to hold the great majority of their seats).
As it is, the nice hope that a much denuded Lib Dem response in the Commons next time will still hold the balance of power seems just that; there will be many minority parties next time, and the Lib Dems could easily find themselves back to where they were decades ago, in irrelevance. What an ungrateful nation.Reuse content