Johann Hari: Will the Lib Dems follow the Tories over a cliff?

Cleggmania seems now like one of those Christmas No 1s that everybody bought and nobody can remember why - the political equivalent of Mr Blobby

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The clips of senior Liberal Democrats on the news defending David Cameron's imminent deeper-than-Thatcher slash-back are starting to look like hostage videos from Iraq. Slightly dazed, poor Simon Hughes or Menzies Campbell or Charles Kennedy will glance somewhere off camera with a nervous twitch and mumble a few supportive platitudes. Yes, we know that before the election Nick Clegg said: "There isn't a serious economist in the world who agrees with the Conservatives... [that] we should pull the rug out from under the economy with immediate spending cuts." We know he said the people pushing this argument were "fake" and "a con". But... um... things have changed... and... er... cut... yes... cut... now, please tell my family I love them and I'll be home soon, and don't hurt me, please, no, no.

Christopher Hitchens once said: "All politicians lie, but the Clintons do it with such ease, it's frightening." The Lib Dems are the polar opposite. It's to their credit that they are finding lying so difficult, and do it so badly: Vince Cable's protestations of agreement with George Osborne caused all polygraph machines within a 1,000-mile radius of Liverpool to ping into action.

So why is this party composed primarily of nice centre-left people of good conscience providing the enabling votes for the biggest and most regressive programme of retrenchment in generations? How long can it last? The Lib Dems have an air of stunned confusion. The coalition with the Tories happened suddenly, came entirely from Nick Clegg and a tiny team at the top, and was sealed without any of them having time to think it through. Their first reaction is excitement, like suddenly finding your football team has leapt from the bottom of the league to the top. They want Nick Clegg to be right. They want to trust him.

They point to the good things he has wrung out of the Conservatives with justified pride. It looks like Labour's disastrous jail-them-all, stack-'em-high prisons policy, that worsens criminals and endangers us all, is going to end. Schools will soon receive significantly more cash – a "pupil premium" – if they take in a child from a poor family, a move that will help steadily unpick the ugly covert selection that scars our education system. They have secured a proper inquiry into our security services' complicity with torture under Labour. They made Cameron abandon his pledge to give a massive inheritance tax cut to the richest one per cent of Brits. These are real achievements and they deserve real credit.

But in their guts, ordinary Liberal Democrats fear that any piece of progress they achieve is going to disappear into a whirlpool of recession and unemployment and soaring poverty caused by the coalition's economic policies. George Osborne is explicitly following the economic policies pioneered by Ireland during the past two years: "Look and learn from across the Irish Sea," he said. Prioritise paying your debt above everything else. Be an anti-Roosevelt. Scorn stimulus. We can see the results. It means Ireland is facing one of the worst economic collapses in the world, and had to spend this entire week denying it was about to by bailed out by the IMF. By contrast, the countries that have pursued an aggressive, debt-funded Keynesian stimulus – like South Korea – have pulled out of this recession fastest of all.

Yet the Liberal Democrat leadership has unequivocally nailed itself to the cut-your-way-out-of-a-recession strategy, with no way out. Clegg ridiculed the arguments from John Maynard Keynes, the greatest Liberal of the 20th century. He has even said it would be immoral to pursue an economic stimulus – an argument which would present Roosevelt as the great villain of the 1930s, and Herbert Hoover and the Republicans as the heroes. Why would Clegg do this? When he is quizzed by his colleagues, he keeps using the old line Blair used on Iraq: "It's worse than you think. I really believe in it."

This hawkishness has spread so rapidly that the party's election song in 2015 could be the 1980s Sinitta hit "So Macho". The conference podium was filled with chest-beating talk about "staying the course" and "holding our nerve" – but if the course you are on is wrong, you should abandon it at once. The former MP Lembit Opik tried to reassure the activists by saying the Government would last five years so "there will be time for the scars" caused by all this "to heal." But if the economic wound is getting deeper and more infected – as it will, with these policies – then there will be only worsening. It's why Tim Farron, another Lib Dem MP, told a fringe meeting: "We mustn't panic. We mustn't panic!" in a very panicked voice.

Yet while the Liberal Democrat grassroots suspect all this, they are reluctant to truly peer into this chasm. Their revolts centred on the Tories' education and health policies. They're bad enough, for sure, but they are secondary to the horrendous social problems that will come from slashing 40 percent from the budgets of most departments, trigger a much worse recession, and harm schools and hospitals much more.

How long will they follow an unworldly and naïve leadership over an economic cliff? Remember, Clegg is so out-of-touch that he said in 2008 that the state pension was £30 a week – a third of the actual amount, and a level that would kill most pensioners. No wonder he thinks key services can lose 40 percent and survive. Danny Alexander said last month that "no-one would say they came into politics to cut public spending." No-one? Has he met the Conservatives he sits in cabinet with? Does he know anything about their intellectual traditions?

The party's members are anxiously aware of the political consequences for their party. A ComRes poll this weekend found that 52 percent of Liberal Democrat voters believe Clegg has "sold out", and the party's support has nearly halved. This is before the cuts hit. In Australia, the once-popular Democratic Party propped up a right-wing government – and was killed dead by the electorate. Remember the "Cleggmania" after the debates? It seems now like one of those mad Christmas No 1s that everybody bought and nobody can remember why – the political equivalent of Mr Blobby's hit single.

The referendum on electoral reform may determine the timing of when – and if – the party turns on Clegg. If it is won, we will be much more likely to have hung parliaments in future, with the Lib Dems retaining the balance of power, even when their numbers are radically diminished. This could keep them with the coalition, even as the economic storm worsens. If the referendum is lost, though, the party will be furious they got so little – and know they are very likely to return to the wilderness in diminished form anyway.

Some Lib Dems are already speaking out. Professor Richard Grayson, their excellent parliamentary candidate for Hemel Hempstead, says: "The support I got would've disappeared if they'd know we were going to sign up to the Conservative agenda on cuts.... How as a party are we going to survive this?" At the moment, he says, the opposition within the party is "like the French Resistance in 1940 – random acts of sabotage, but nothing co-ordinated. Next year we may get to 1941, where it was be organized and systematic."

Clegg ended his speech with a rousing cry to "imagine how different our country will be" in 2015, after five years of ConDem rule. Oh, but we can, Nick. That's precisely the reason why we – and your party – are getting so nervous.;

Further reading

'The Return of the Master' by Robert Skidelsky (Bloomsbury, 2009).

'Correction: The quote from Christopher Hitchens above was originally incorrectly attributed to Sidney Blumenthal.'

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