It takes no great clairvoyant to predict that Nick Clegg is not going to enjoy today. An extraordinary degree of inaccuracy in the polls – or a last-minute stampede by an unsuspected posse of reformers – would be needed for a Yes vote on switching to the Alternative Vote system. As for the local council elections, the Liberal Democrats were probably doomed, with or without the referendum, if only because they did particularly well four years ago. From there, realistically, the only way was down.
In the first draft of history as it relates to Britain's only coalition government since the Second World War, Clegg has been dead meat for a while. But the hyenas that have stalked him since his first month in government, will now start tucking in for a feast of Lucullan proportions. If AV is rejected by a very wide margin, there will be a clamour for his head. If the more scurrilous speculation is to be believed, he could face a challenge from his former rival for the party leadership, Chris Huhne.
For his enemies – often erstwhile friends – Clegg's failings are many. He took the Liberal Democrats into a coalition with the Conservatives, not – as half his party had hoped – with Labour. He "betrayed" all the students, and idealists everywhere, who had been seduced by his manifesto promise to abolish tuition fees. He signed up to a restructuring of the sacred NHS that seemed to push it towards the market, even though such change had not featured in anyone's manifesto. He led his MPs through the lobby behind Iain Duncan Smith's benefits changes, and accepted George Osborne's supposedly "slash and burn" Budgets without demur. Each one of these, but especially student fees, was seen as a mortal sin; together they turned Clegg into the devil incarnate.
Through the months of vitriol, Clegg and his dwindling band of supporters preserved one unimpeachable line of defence. All this, they could say, was the down-payment they had to make to qualify for the prize they desired above all others: a reform of the electoral system. Yes, it had entailed compromise. Clegg had had to settle for AV, rather than the proportional representation his party had so long craved, and this lost him some reformist luminaries, such as David Owen of SDP fame. Yes, too, it was a high-stakes gamble, for Clegg personally and for his party, but not one that looked unwinnable.
In the last weeks, as the odds lengthened, Clegg had still more serious sins heaped upon him. He was held to have been bamboozled (by the sweet-talking Cameron) into paying an inflated price for a reform that was never going to be worth having. He was accused of misjudging the public mood, of poor timing and – worst of all in the eyes of dedicated reformists – of consigning any change in the electoral system to the political waste-bin for a generation. The mood will only become more bitter. Pilloried for misjudgement, Clegg will be in one of the loneliest places a politician can be. As the referendum campaign drew to its close, one-time fans were already keeping their distance. He could be forgiven for judging that the game is simply not worth the candle.
Yet there is judgement and there is luck. And, while Clegg is guilty of some misjudgements – a reluctance to believe, perhaps, that Cameron would, when survival was at stake, put his party first – he has also suffered some exceptionally bad luck and been let down by some naïve and disgracefully fickle supporters. Among the most unjust accusations, beyond the one that he should never have taken his party into government at all, is that he was too impatient for electoral reform. Think back a year to the Coalition negotiations; it was imperative for Clegg to have electoral reform placed on the agenda, and to secure Cameron's commitment to legislation or a referendum within the year. Electoral reform was the deal-maker; without it, there would have been no coalition of any complexion. Given all the scepticism about how long the concordat would survive, the timetable had to be short and clear. One year's delay was at the limit of what the Liberal Democrat leader could accept.
Nor is it Clegg's fault that the first four months of this year – a full third of his time in government – have seen a torrent of world events, including a new British military mission over Libya, in which the campaign for rather timid electoral reform has barely been able to make itself heard. Add the spate of public holidays, the feel-good royal wedding, and only the most simplistic, monosyllabic shouts have penetrated the public consciousness. Even the incontestable fact that the Scots have coped expertly with electoral reform in voting for their devolved government has been drowned out by references to complexity in Australia. From the start, the Yes people were slow to parry the cheap shots of the No campaign, but when it came down to it, voters had more to think about than AV.
The timing of the referendum to coincide with local and regional elections also had a malign effect – although not in the way that was most feared. The problem was less that voters did not give the referendum the time of day than that they seem to have treated it as a referendum on the Coalition rather than the electoral system. Although there was cross-party campaigning, the arguments quickly strayed into party-political territory.
In the end, voters will have to judge whether the likely demise of electoral reform condemns Nick Clegg and the whole of the Liberal Democrats' venture into coalition. If Clegg and his party have from now on to campaign on other issues, however, that might just be their salvation. Winning or losing AV has so dominated their public profile that they have neglected to boast of their positive achievements in coalition. For the next four years, or however long they remain in office, the Liberal Democrats must keep reminding us of how very different the Government would look if they were not there.
The stridency and absolutism of the Conservative-led No campaign is evidence in itself of how the Lib Dems have added substance and softened edges to government policies in a way that goes beyond mere appearance. The "pause" in the passage of the NHS Bill is just one of the results. We are a long way from all that double-handed joshing in the garden at No 10 a year ago, but an extra few degrees of separation might be no bad thing.