Alan Watkins: Ha! Just when you thought the Lib Dems had become a complete irrelevance...

All is changed from that gloomy time when he met his end
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Politics goes in very short bursts of fashion. So it was that, even before the assassination of Mr Charles Kennedy, what Victorian Westminster called a "hum" and we call a "buzz" was that the Liberal Democrats were becoming increasingly "irrelevant". That, indeed, was one of the reasons openly given for Mr Kennedy's murder, even before the dark deed had been done. Mr Kennedy, so it was said, notably by some of his parliamentary colleagues, was failing to make the impact he ought to be making.

This was on the odd side, to say the least, as he was leading a party which had just won more seats than it had at any election since 1923. Ah, Mr Kennedy's detractors would reply, the Liberal Democrats ought to have done better still, what with Iraq and all that. And his performance since the election had been lamentable.

I could not see it myself - nor can I today. But then Mr David Cameron became leader of the Conservatives. Mr Kennedy was gunned down. And two of the candidates to replace him confessed to manifold sins and wickedness, or so some people thought. What a shower! Not only were the LibDems irrelevant. That was the polite way of putting it. They were virtually finished as a political force.

That was a few weeks ago. Now all is changed, not perhaps changed utterly - for we have been here before - but changed from that gloomy time when Mr Kennedy met his end. The LibDems are once again "relevant", even interesting, to those who possess a strange and unusual taste for politics. This will remain so, irrespective of whether it is Sir Menzies Campbell, Mr Chris Huhne or, most implausibly, Mr Simon Hughes who comes out top (perhaps after a second count) on Thursday.

To every action, Newton tells us, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Tory reaction to Mr Cameron's assorted pieties has reminded people that he is not guaranteed always to have his own way, or not, at any rate, without a fight by him and his supporters. Mr Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail has happily dubbed these supporters the Alice Band, because they are all called Alice, or are married to an Alice, or have Alice as a daughter, a mother or even a grandmother. They clearly still have a lot of persuading to do in their own party.

Then there was Mr Cameron's performance at Prime Minister's Questions a couple of weeks ago. It was not that it was bad exactly. Several commentators were, I thought, mistaken in suggesting that it was. What happened was that Mr Cameron used the phrase "flip-flop" in relation to the Government. Mr Tony Blair retaliated by asking: who's flipping - or, alternatively, flopping - now? He provided examples to illustrate his question, ending by saying it was no wonder the Conservative leader was against the introduction of identity cards. Mr Cameron made no reply.

It was not perhaps a knockout but, in the bar-room culture of PMQs, it was certainly a win on points for the Prime Minister. What was more important was that the old pro (who still likes to pretend he is an amateur at heart) had shown he was no longer intimidated by a younger opponent.

And, of course, there was the Dunfermline by-election. Not only did the Tories do so badly that they may as well roll up that map of Scotland in the operations room at Central Office (or whatever their grim new maisonette in Victoria Street is called). More than this, the LibDems actually won, when nobody was expecting them to do anything of the kind.

With all these developments of the past few weeks, there has grown the feeling that, while Mr Cameron may well deprive Labour of its majority, he will not do quite enough - certainly not enough in our anti-Conservative electoral system - to win a majority of his own. To do this he must win 126 seats. At the last election the Conservatives won an extra 32. They might still, however, easily win another 32 (coincidentally, the same figure) required to deprive Labour of its own absolute majority. Once again, we are back to our old friend, the hung Parliament.

It is not, I confess, a term I greatly care for. It was first used by The Economist at the time of the first election of 1974. It derives from the US phrase for a divided jury. As a matter of fact, if Edward Heath had persuaded Jeremy Thorpe to bring the Liberals into alliance with the government - what he was offering was far short of a coalition, by any definition - their combined forces would still have been short of an absolute majority.

For most of its time, James Callaghan's government was sustained in office by the Liberals, though this support came to a theoretical end well before that administration fell on a vote of confidence in March 1979.

However, the high point in talk of a hung Parliament occurred after 1979, when Margaret Thatcher had a small but perfectly adequate majority, and great expectations were reposed in the newly formed Alliance party consisting of Liberals and Social Democrats. The talk continued unabated after 1983 - if anything, it flowed more strongly - when Mrs Thatcher had a colossal majority, and the Alliance was led jointly by David Owen and David Steel. They were constantly being asked by journalists about what their attitude would be if neither of the major parties held a majority. And they were constantly ready to oblige. My colleagues were trying, in Lord Beaverbrook's phrase, to sow the seeds of discord. In this they were only too successful. Dr Owen, in particular, was always prepared to give a lengthy account of his views. As these usually differed not only from Mr Steel's but also from his own previous utterances, they provided fertile ground for much scornful comment.

Nor did Paddy Ashdown change matters greatly. On the one hand, he claimed to want "equidistance" from the other two parties. On the other, however, he made it clear that there was nothing he would like better than to cooperate closely with Mr Blair. It was Tony who spurned Paddy.

When he became leader, I gave Mr Kennedy two pieces of advice. One was to break off relations with Mr Blair; the other was to refuse to speculate about what he would do if there was a hung Parliament. No good would come of it, I said. He took the advice, whether because he was influenced by me or because he would have done the same anyway. I only hope his successor is equally sensible.

Comments