You might expect me to say that I come to bury the Coalition, not to praise it – but that wouldn’t be the considered response, and in any case, the voters of Britain have beaten me to it. Let me pick out some key themes that may help explain my thinking. Trust, Tories and Teams. In short:
- We lost a colossal amount of trust over tuition fees. Not only did we break our pledge, but it’s worse than that, it never even looked like we fought to keep it. That was wrong, it was a mistake of the highest order and one for which we were never forgiven. It didn’t matter that in many ways the new policy was better for poorer students. Nor that the issue was devolved. And it didn’t matter that all Welsh Lib Dem MPs kept their pledge: It was a political disaster. At that moment, for the people who were already sceptical, this was all the confirmation they needed. Details no longer mattered, people simply stopped listening.
- The Tories, frankly, were better prepared back in 2010, constructed a more potent narrative, and were brilliant at assimilating Lib Dem policies and boxing us in. Critically, they owned the economic narrative and made the political weather. We got the grief when things went wrong and never the credit for the good stuff. I lost count the number of times people said they liked the Coalition, which was why they would vote Tory this time rather than us.
- And let us be in no doubt, although we were dealt a difficult hand, we could have handled it better. Obsessed with showing that coalition could work and that we could take ‘tough decisions’ we lost our own focus, our own identity, forgot to take ownership of our achievements until it was too late – it just came across as ‘Team Coalition’, rather than ‘Team Lib Dem’. From the Rose Garden on, we were swallowed up.
And more than that – and maybe in the end this was the biggest self-inflicted wound – we appeared to the electorate to leap from a firm and hard fought anchorage in one part of UK politics to another without so much as a by-your-leave.