Alan Watkins: The Lib Dem leader must keep his counsel

Clegg or Huhne will inherit a party in good order, thanks to Vince Cable, but will do well avoid talking about pacts
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The Independent Online

When the new political season started only a few months ago (though it seems longer), the papers were full of more or less derisive articles along the lines of: what are the Liberal Democrats for? Answers included, "Blessed if I know" and "Not much". And that old standby, "They haven't got the policies", was also trotted out.

In fact they have always had policies coming out of their ears, even if you had to buy up the entire contents of the old Liberal bookshop to discover what it was at any given moment. What people really mean when they complain of a lack of policies is that they do not have a picture in their minds of what a party stands for. New Labour in 1997 had hardly any policies at all. It was our old friend the "image" all over again (a term first used, as far as I have been able to establish, by the Fabian Socialist Graham Wallas in 1908).

In this groundswell of scorn, I refused to join. After all, there were 63 Liberal Democrat MPs, four more than had sat as Liberals in the 1929 Parliament with David Lloyd George as leader. They had a perfectly competent leader of the present time in Sir Menzies Campbell (I am going back now to mid-September). He had done well in the recent by-elections, shortly before the advent of Mr Gordon Brown. In a new Parliament, the Liberal Democrats might well hold the balance of power.

Well, I told them but they wouldn't listen. The first casualty was Sir Ming. He was a victim of the Parliamentary sketch writers. Mr Brown might hold an election at any minute. He would probably go on to win it. Whatever happened, the Liberal Democrats would lose seats. Such was the wisdom of the wise, immediately before the Liberal Democrat conference and before the reassembly of the House.

Now all is changed utterly. I cannot recall such a sudden change in the reputation of a prime minister. There was Anthony Eden after Suez; Harold Macmillan in 1962, well before the Profumo affair; Harold Wilson, after devaluation; Edward Heath, in the three-day week; James Callaghan, with his refusal to have an election in 1978 and the subsequent fight with the unions; John Major and our exit from the ERM.

In most of these examples, the prime minister who had lost his reputation, made a mistake or merely suffered ill luck was defeated at the forthcoming election. Eden was got rid of before he could fight an election, while Macmillan resigned of his own accord. With Mr Brown, the change occurred in a matter of weeks, or days even. It took an ill-advised promise by the Chancellor, Mr Alistair Darling, acting on Mr Brown's authority, to fiddle with Inheritance Tax and the cancellation of an election by Mr Brown himself for the curse to fall.

Misfortunes have come in whole battalions ever since. But then, in the summer, the Prime Minister was being acclaimed for all manner of virtues which he did not possess and could not possibly have claimed. Terror in the streets? We could sleep safe in our beds. Floods in the countryside? Most of us were dry. Foot and mouth? Everything was under control. In the summer, the public disposition was to trust Mr Brown, the father of the nation. Today, he is more like a profligate uncle, having spent his savings and on his way to the moneylenders.

I have written before that Sir Ming was ungratefully, even brutally, treated by his party. So he was. But Dr Vince Cable, who is the Lib Dem leader until Mr Chris Huhne or Mr Nick Clegg is announced on Tuesday, has done his party proud.

Just as Mr Brown has been transformed from an asset to a liability, so has Dr Cable been turned, before our eyes, as if by sorcery, from a glass of Tizer to a bottle of Champagne. He has almost become what used to be called may still be called a "cult figure".

He has perhaps been lucky in that his special subject is economics. In particular, he is calling for the nationalisation of Northern Rock. For Mr Brown and his colleagues, the word is like an obscenity heard among the elders of the kirk. The Labour backbenchers keep quiet for that is what they have been told to do. Mr David Cameron, Mr George Osborne and the rest of them do not know quite what attitude to strike except to take pleasure in the discomfiture of Mr Brown.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, whoever it happened to be in the past, used to be heard in the House either in sullen silence or with contrived hostility. Today the Labour backbenchers sit on their hands, while the Conservatives respond as if they were listening to a command performance by Mr Ken Dodd.

Now, this is not solely on account of the reserves of wit and humour which have lain dormant in Dr Cable for so long. It is rather that the Conservatives have been able to use Dr Cable to turn poor Mr Brown into a figure of fun.

Dr Cable's spell may turn out to have been a brief interlude in parliamentary history. It may be back to the old ways silence or hostility with Mr Clegg or Mr Huhne. I am making no forecasts. But Mr Huhne has been on television more, because of the fuss he has made, quite rightly, about Labour funding. The contest has been going on for weeks. It is not for me to take sides, but it does not seem entirely fair to Mr Clegg, though I would not welcome even more regulation of television.

The consensus seems to be that Mr Clegg would be prepared to talk to either side if no party had a majority, but that Mr Huhne would find it difficult to support the Conservatives, even with, perhaps especially with, Mr Cameron as leader. It has even been suggested by one commentator, Mr Peter Preston in The Guardian, that the successful candidate owes it to us to make his intentions known between now and the election.

There are several objections to this course. The precise circumstances can never be known in advance. Why should the Lib Dems hold a holiday for the entertainment of the press?

In the 1980s, many tons of newsprint were devoted to Lord Owen, Lord Steel and their varying (and often conflicting) views. Lord Ashdown carried on in the same speculative vein. Even Sir Ming gave into temptation, with his first speech in March this year. Only Mr Charles Kennedy had the sense to keep quiet.

I have one plea. Could we please ditch the word "coalition" unless we really are talking about a coalition? We had coalitions in wartime in the last century. The National Government of 1931-40 was in practice a Conservative government.

Mr Jeremy Thorpe might or might not have joined the Heath Cabinet in March 1974 (the facts are disputed), but it would not have amounted to a coalition. The Lib-Lab pact of the Callaghan period was, as it said it was, a pact. And a pact, or an agreement, is the most that can be hoped for after the election.