A year on.
Ah, those heady days of last May. A widely loathed government given its marching orders, and yet the opposition and supposed natural party of power was still distrusted to such an extent that it failed to win an overall majority. Into the breach stepped housewives favourite Nick 'Cleggmania' Clegg, bravely leading his band of Liberal Democrats into the political no man's land of coalition. Following a whirlwind romance and the equivalent of the drawing up of a pre-nupital agreement, Dave and Nick presented themselves to the public in the rose garden, cracking jokes while staring into the flashbulbs, their worries about what lay ahead at the very backs of their minds.
A year on and that month's marriage of convenience has turned sour for one half and one half only. In spite of losing the power behind the throne, Andy Coulson having to finally resign for a second time over something he knew nothing about, the Conservatives and David Cameron in particular have if anything gained in strength. Last week's local election results showed a party holding on and even in some areas consolidating its seats at the expense of their coalition partner. It was always laughable that Labour could just sit on the sidelines for five years letting the cuts do their work for them, and their meagre gains, again mainly thanks to the Lib Dems, have shown just the size of the task Ed Miliband has to win former supporters back. Add in how certain individuals in the party seem to think that their core supporters are worthy of ridicule or derision, seemingly out of the false belief that they have nowhere else to go, something last week's results in Scotland ought to have disproved, and it's little wonder how relaxed the Tories are about their position at the moment.
They certainly aren't going to rise to Vince Cable calling them "ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal", although most will have taken it as a compliment in any case. They're also not going to give Nick Clegg the pleasure of rushing to the defence of Margaret Thatcher, taken as he has to promising that he won't let the Tories take us back to the 1980s, a palpable fear apparently expressed to him on the doorsteps. Where once we were wondering whether the "disputes" being had inside the cabinet were manufactured, allowing each to appeal to their base supporters, so we have now reached the point where the differences in opinion are real but where the Conservatives no longer care. Sure, Cameron's rejected the view that there is one party moderating the other, as the Liberal Democrats have been desperate to put across, yet it's just the motions being gone through. The only thing he has to worry about is the Lib Dems getting a little too high above their station, and all he has to do is discreetly threaten to disengage and go to the polls, with the inevitable wipeout which would follow to frighten those going too far in their criticisms into quietening down.
Most bewildering of all is just how politically naive the Liberal Democrats have been over the past year. Every single trap they've walked into has been clearly signposted, yet they've careered into them regardless. It was obvious from the beginning that they would be the coalition's fall guys, taking the blame for enabling the Tories to do what they wanted. The new straw to clutch at is the analysis from the BBC that 75% of their manifesto is being implemented through the agreement, while only 60% of the Conservatives' increasingly laughable document is. This would be more of something to be proud of if their policies weren't rendered meaningless by the other changes being introduced: it's all well and good raising the income tax threshold, it's just a shame that the increase in VAT means that any gain for the poorest is wiped out. Similarly self-defeating is the pupil premium: what would be a laudable increase in funds for the poorest is naturally not no money thanks to the cuts, merely redirected from elsewhere within the schools budget. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is never good politics. Nick Clegg wants to make a better job of blowing his own trumpet (oo-er), lauding how the coalition thanks to Liberal Democrat input has ended child detention (it hasn't), while also adding a quarter of a million apprenticeships, strangely without mentioning the abolition of the Future Jobs Fund.
Nowhere is the fundamental dishonesty more heinous than in the fictional, revised account of how the coalition came into being. Nick Clegg in his speech to the Liberal Club yesterday, making reference to Roy Hattersley's categorisation of past coalitions in this country as being either of convenience, conviction or necessity, argued that this was a case of the latter. Rather than his party being dazzled by the prospect of power and temporarily taking leave of most of its senses, rushed into a quick decision by a Conservative party that couldn't believe its luck at how quickly they abandoned so many of their key manifesto promises, so we are now told that those days in May were a "moment of national crisis", the markets ready to swarm should a government not fully dedicated to a deficit reduction programme not be immediately formed. This is a fantasy, and Clegg knows it is. Just as disingenuous is his claim that we are now out of the financial danger zone, as though the last six months which has seen the economy dawdle along at an effective growth rate of 0% means that the worst is now behind us.
It could have been so different. There was nothing inherently ignoble about the Liberal Democrats deciding to share power with the Conservatives, even if Labour would have been a more natural fit. After spending so long in the wilderness, turning it down could have been just as disastrous as at the moment it looks taking up the reins will be. The party's problem has been that from the very beginning they've allowed themselves to be seen as propping the Tories up, rather than acting as a block on their worst excesses. From the moment Clegg and Cameron appeared as an effective double act the die was cast: this wasn't two parties working together in the national interest as they have repeatedly insisted, it was two like-minded politicians delighting in the first flush of what they'd started their careers hoping to achieve. Everything since then has followed the same dismal pattern, Cameron in complete control, Flashman as he is hardly insultingly being referred to, while Clegg is the one held responsible for the destruction left in the prime minister's wake. With 4 years still left to run there's plenty of time for the spell to be broken, for the Liberal Democrats to forge their own path within the coalition, it's just they show no inclination whatsoever of doing so. And they can hardly say they weren't warned.