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Editorial: The Lib Dems are walking tall

They have made a difference as a junior coalition partner, which the voters recognised

If someone had listed on 12 May 2010, when David Cameron and Nick Clegg inaugurated the first peacetime coalition government for 75 years, the setbacks the Liberal Democrats would suffer over the following three years, we might have assumed that the party would have sunk below the surface by now.

They lost two cabinet ministers, David Laws and Chris Huhne, for wrongdoing; they lost the referendum on voting reform; their U-turn on tuition fees has become an exemplar of betrayal; and their former chief executive is still snagged on allegations of sexual harassment.

Yet the party is gathered in Brighton for its spring conference this weekend in better heart than it has been at any time since that glad confident morning in the Downing Street garden. The immediate source of its good spirit was its success in holding Huhne's seat in Eastleigh in the by-election last month. Simply holding on is a huge achievement for a government party at a time of economic gloom and anti-politics mood. For the Liberal Democrats, after their travails and when their standing in national opinion polls is well below half their share of the vote at the general election, it seems miraculous.

Two lessons may be learnt from this. One is that the personal conduct of the party's leaders, acknowledged or alleged, has not detracted from voters' assessment of Lib Dem policies and values. The other is that the party will be a large presence in the House of Commons after the next general election, as it has proved that it can defend most of the 57 seats that it holds.

Yet the party is buoyant because it is more than just a vote-harvesting machine. Its members believe that they have shown maturity as a party of government, and that they have made a difference as a junior coalition partner, which the voters have recognised and for which they will be rewarded. Whereas for journalists, "coalition tensions" has been one of the easiest headlines to write every day for nearly three years, for the Lib Dems, those tensions are the point of pluralist government.

They have prevented the Conservatives from doing things which are not in the national interest, such as scrapping the Human Rights Act or wasting a tax break on marriage. And they have persuaded the Tories to do things that they might not have done, such as raising the income tax threshold.

True, Lib Dem MPs may be embarrassed by Labour's clever Commons motion for a mansion tax on Tuesday, and this newspaper did not agree with the party's change of sides on the pace of deficit reduction in 2010. Nor has Mr Clegg handled the allegations of sexual harassment well. And the party can still be almost endearingly amateur, as when the leader's face was obscured by a camera on a tripod that rose up like a periscope during his speech on Friday.

Despite everything, Mr Clegg's party is still with us, and still fighting for many of the values shared by The Independent on Sunday. They are the greenest of the three main parties, the most pro-European and they are the party that, 10 years ago this month, opposed the invasion of Iraq.

Their record in government has been mixed. But, for a party that was last in office in 1945, to have a record in government at all is an achievement. A Liberal leader once urged the party to march towards the sound of gunfire. Now, as Liberal Democrats, they are going through the gunfire. And they are still standing.