The big 'what ifs' of recent British politics: Liberal Democrats

Clegg Rally

With six weeks to go, speculations are mounting over the election results. But what could have happened if different events had taken course.

It’s always interesting to speculate about what would have happened if politicians and parties had made different decisions in the past. The second in this series on ‘what ifs’ will focus on the Liberal Democrats.

1) No coalition in 2010

What if the election in 2010 had resulted in failed coalition talks between the Conservatives and the Liberals? What if instead they had come to an agreement where the Lib Dems would prop up a minority Tory government and vote on an issue by issue basis - perhaps in exchange for raising the income tax threshold or a referendum on real proportional representation, or something else or a combination of these things.

In this hypothetical scenario there would be criticism that the Lib Dems would be propping up a Conservative government, but they would not be as tainted by going into full on coalition. Come December of that first year of Tory rule there would likely have been a vote on raising tuition fees to £9000. Being able to vote on an issue by issue by basis would save the Liberal Democrats from having to vote for the rise. The MPs could have stayed true to their pledge that they would not raise tuition fees and vote against the measure.

In the real world the policy was approved by 21 votes. Just 27 out of the 57 Lib Dem MPs voted in favour of the proposal. If all had voted against it then the rise would not have happened, all other things being equal. The ‘betrayal’ on tuition fees is remembered as a turning point in Liberal Democrat support; under a vote by vote agreement, they could have stopped the rise and helped put a stop to their falling support. On two levels they would win, 1) they would stop the rise, and 2) their reputation would remain more intact.

2) Leadership coup

Remember the secret polling, which resulted in accusations that Vince Cable was going to take over from Nick Clegg before the election. What if it had resulted in a leadership contest and Vince Cable had emerged victorious. In this scenario, Mr Cable might have been able to draw back some support from more left-leaning former Liberal Democrats, but by this point the change would not make much difference as this would follow the tuition fees vote and over four years of coalition government.

It could have helped the party in some ways, but arguably not enough to see them gain back mass support.

More what ifs

What if the Lib Dems had voted against tuition fees being increased and potentially triggered another election? What if they had pulled out of the coalition early? Many what ifs. Thinking too much will not make a difference now, but come the election in May, many Lib Dem supporters might wonder: what if they had done things differently? What if different choices were made?


The big what ifs of British politics: Labour

The Lib Dems need a break from government

Gap between UKIP and Lib Dems narrowing - what does it mean?