In 2010, the Liberal Democrats entered into a coalition agreement with the Conservatives, providing Britain’s first peace-time coalition government. Five years later, the party was reduced to an orange rump of eight MPs. At that election, the party was prepared to form another coalition, with the BBC reporting that Nick Clegg laid out a series of red lines for such a deal.
In the end, that did not matter as the Conservatives returned a slim majority.
Two years after that, Tim Farron declared that his party would make no deals in the event of a hung parliament. The party made a net gain of four MPs (although their vote share dipped slightly) and they remained on the opposition benches.
Liberal Democrats and political commentators will continue to argue the pros and cons of the Liberal Democrats joining with the Tories in 2010. On one hand, they mitigated more savage cuts and other policies that the Conservatives would have implemented while the party delivered on a significant amount of its manifesto. On the other, they helped initiate austerity and damaged themselves for a generation.
The party made mistakes while with the Conservatives, but coalitions, compromises and actually implementing one’s policies are vital to politics. Governing is the goal.
That takes us to the next election. After last June's surprises, no outcome is impossible and that is why the Liberal Democrats will be thinking about their position.
By the next vote, Brexit will have happened, and the Liberal Democrats will need to make sure they are not the just anti-Brexit party, and therefore must come up with clear, memorable and radical policies to transform Britain.
One likely outcome of the next vote is a Labour plurality in which Jeremy Corbyn’s party falls short of winning a majority. Labour has significantly more allies in the House of Commons than the Conservatives. They could rely on the SNP, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. If the Liberal Democrats make reasonable gains (and win say 20 or so seats), they could be key players in a hung parliament.
The party could end up with two options: join a coalition with Labour or reach a confidence and supply deal.
Recent history suggests which one would be preferable. In coalition the Liberal Democrats achieved good things but lost out politically. In contrast, the DUP have managed to get a lot of what they set out to achieve while keeping a distance from the struggling government.
Much will depend on the politics of the time, but a confidence and supply deal would be the party's better option, which is why the Liberal Democrats need to have a number of central policies to get implemented with the help of Labour. In terms of values, the two parties are much closer than the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, meaning that much of the ground-work is already in place. When it comes to the environment, progressive economics and the NHS, the parties have significant cross-overs. There is also a significant body of Labour support for political and electoral reform, which the Liberal Democrats could tap into. On many of these issues, the SNP and the Greens could also help.
The next election could give the Liberal Democrats the opportunity to influence the country while remaining outside government.
The party’s leadership, led by former Labour councillor Vince Cable, needs to seriously prepare for that possibility.
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