There will probably not be a leadership election for the Liberal Democrats until after the next general election but the packed Independent fringe meeting, addressed by Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg this week, took on the air of an embryonic hustings. One member of the audience even addressed his questions to "both the candidates".
But before the question of the leadership is addressed, a far more pressing question, of what this party is for, remains unanswered. Even more pressing is the issue of just who the Lib Dems would allow to govern in the event of an inconclusive result at the next general election.
In 1997, the Lib Dems were part of an informal coalition with New Labour to oust the discredited Tories. The tactical vote was the all-important weapon of voter choice to achieve this. If the Lib Dems had a better chance than Labour of beating the Tories, voters would cast their ballots accordingly. This resulted in the quantum advance in the Lib-Dems' parliamentary representation. The same voter motivation – to keep the Tories out – increased the number of Lib-Dem MPs in 2001 and the distinctive appeal, based on opposition to the Iraq war, kept them in business in 2005.
Lib Dems seem unable, however, to repeat the tactical voting trick when the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. Whenever there has previously been a clear desire to "throw the rascals out" – when the rascals have been a discredited Labour Government as in 1979 or 1970 – the Lib-Dems' predecessors suffered badly in the two-party crossfire. There is no evidence yet that the public actually wants to throw Labour out but should that happen, if Gordon Brown's honeymoon comes to an end, Lib Dems will lose heavily in the process.
Unless, that is, they face up publicly to the possibility that there might be circumstances in which they would be able to acknowledge, in advance, some kind of working relationship with the Tories. But such ideas are rejected out of hand by every Lib Dem – in my view to their detriment in being able to play any effective part in removing Labour from office, should that become the desire of voters. It is hard, therefore, to imagine voters supporting Lib Dems tactically, as they did in 1997, if the tide of national opinion is marching in the opposite direction.
Both Mr Huhne and Mr Clegg refuse – along with Sir Menzies Campbell – to countenance any form of coalition government or formal power sharing under the current system. When asked what their price for power sharing would be, they throw the question back at the other parties. But the "call us – we won't call you" approach seems to me to pass up a golden opportunity to play a part in political events, should the next election result be inconclusive. In such circumstances a minority government would presumably stumble along on an issue-by-issue basis until a second general election would follow in quick succession – probably obliterating most remaining Lib Dems in the process.
On broad philosophy, Lib Dems have been faced with a barrage of questions from the media as to what precisely they are for in the current political climate. Campbell had a good general answer, which he summed up in three words: "free, fair and green". Rejecting the old "right-left" measure, he rightly prefers issues to be determined according to a "liberalism versus authoritarian" yardstick.
Following on from this, there is surely scope for his opposition to identity cards, support for localism in public service delivery and his four pence reduction in the standard rate of income tax (paid for by green taxes), to put him on the same side as David Cameron's Conservatives. But the mere suggestion that he might unwittingly be fishing in exactly the same pond as the Tories, fills him – inexplicably – with horror. David Laws, a senior Lib Dem who seems to understand the possibilities that might exist in recognising the overlap with the Cameron Tory approach, has faced up to these realities which might confront his party in the event of a hung Parliament with the Tories as the largest party.
Ironically, the worse the Lib Dems perform at the next election, the nearer to potential power they might be. On present polling evidence, the Tories would make easy gains at the expense of many incumbent Lib Dems – especially in the South and South-west. This would narrow the Tory gap with Labour and reduce the number of Labour seats Tories need in order to gain largest-party status. The perversity of the current Lib-Dem predicament is that they might actually be in a position to share power the more seats they lose. But they must not rule out, in advance, working with the Tories if the electoral arithmetic gives them such a chance.