Lord Oakeshott’s ‘warning’ that the Lib Dems need to sack Nick Clegg comes as no great surprise, but is also very naive. Oakeshott is understandably concerned that Lib Dem support appears to have fallen from 24 percent to about eleven percent and reckons that if a supermarket lost an equivalent share of the market, they’d sack the management. This is probably true, but the metaphor doesn’t take us very far — entering into coalition isn’t at all like one supermarket forming a joint venture with another — and that makes it silly.
The Lib Dems need to re-appraise their strategy and management, opines Oakeshott obviously. And to many of us it is obvious. Those who have deserted the Lib Dems clearly disapprove of their role in the coalition. That doesn’t mean that they dislike coalition in principle, but maybe they’d have liked a coalition with Labour (even if it wasn’t possible to create a majority government that way) or maybe they thought the Lib Dems would make more of a difference. Whatever, their reason for leaving the Lib Dems the poll evidence is clear: these voters have gone to Labour, so its fair to assume its the Tories they really dislike. Sacking Nick Clegg won’t bring these voters running back. The end of the coalition would need to follow and the Lib Dems would have to convince these voters that they’d burnt their bridges with the Tories (this might not be so hard, as the coalition is bound to end in tears and recriminations whatever). Even then a Liberal Democrat Party battered by a leadership election and a big falling out with the Tories is unlikely to appeal or be quickly forgiven.
Instead, the Lib Dems need to hold on to — and grow — the ten percent of voters that remain loyal. These voters obviously don’t share the deserters’ distaste for the Tories. They may not think the Lib Dems are brilliant, but clearly believe things would be worse without them. So they see the Lib Dems as a moderating influence on the Tories: they really want a moderate Conservative government. Sacking Nick Clegg, will give these voters the jitters. Just talking about sacking Nick Clegg and switching to Labour, may well give these voters the jitters.
So the Lib Dems should forget their left wing altogether. They should highlight the nuttiest elements of the Conservative Party (people who hate Lib Dems anyway), while reassuring the ten percent by viciously attacking Labour to the point where switching sides appears impossible. This way they may convince moderate Conservatives that voting Lib Dem will deliver a nice and safe Conservative government, reassure the ten percent and gain some votes from Conservatives uncomfortable with their usual party’s radical elements. Such a strategy could net the Lib Dems a solid fifteen percent of the vote and perhaps reach twenty percent if they can expose enough radical Tories.
A longer term impact of this strategy is that the party’s left wing would almost certainly be purged at the next election. This would give those that remained free reign to give the Lib Dems some ideological coherence, as a party clearly positioned on the right, effectively becoming European-style Christian Democrats. This might well prove attractive to many Tories, who could then join the Lib Dems and allow the Conservative Party to re-invent itself as a US-style Republican Party.
Meanwhile the left, united behind Labour, would be electorally unassailable.