Today is supposed to be an example of Liberal Democrat strategists turning a difficult situation into an opportunity. Two events are combining which give the Lib Dems something very rare: the chance to distinguish themselves from the Conservatives.
Labour is pushing for a vote on culture secretary Jeremy Hunt's conduct in the BSkyB takeover bid. And Nick Clegg is appearing before the Leveson inquiry. In the latter, the deputy prime minister is carefully explaining how the Lib Dems kept their noses (relatively) clean when it came to courting the media. There is a question-mark over whether Lib Dem ministers continued their laudable aloofness after entering power. But, at least for the period beforehand, Clegg's anti-establishment rhetoric was matched by his party's actions. The Lib Dems are natural outsiders.
In the Commons, Lib Dem MPs have been told by Clegg to abstain in the vote over Hunt. This is a blunter political move with the same underlying motive as that seen at Leveson this morning: demonstrating that the Lib Dems aren't joined at the hip to Tory values and Tory interests.
It is a fundamentally weak play, because abstention is fundamentally weak. It is a form of fence-sitting which will provoke the scorn of many. Why not vote against Jeremy Hunt, calling for him to face the scrutiny which David Cameron has so far helped him evade?
The Lib Dem dilemma is summed up by an activist quoted in a new book by Robert Hazell and Ben Yong, The Politics Of Coalition. "[The] Lib Dems are in a speeding car," the activist explains. "If we jump out now we know we're going to get mangled. Even if we're pretty confident that the car is aiming towards a brick wall, our chances are no worse if we stay in the car than if we jump out."
Lib Dems are sitting back and accepting the brick wall of electoral annihilation, wringing their hands about this advancing doom. They may as well take some risks to try to avoid that fate. They need not jump out of the car, but if leaning dangerously out of the window improves their chances of missing the brick wall they should take every chance to do so.
Clegg and co must be bolder - and today's Commons vote gives them an opportunity to do just that.
The idea that Lib Dem ministers might vote against a Cabinet colleague might seem to undermine the collective responsibility of the government. It is just not the done thing in a collegiate administration, it might be argued. Accepting that forgets the fact that the Lib Dems in coalition don't need to play by these rules. The 'new politics' has not proved much different from the old way of doing things, but it doesn't have to be this way. Labour's very limited motion does not demand Hunt's resignation. It merely calls for his referral to the independent adviser on ministerial standards.
According to media reports Clegg has already clashed privately withCameron over the prime minister's decision to shield Hunt. If correct, they reveal that the deputy PM is holding back from matching his views to his actions. Abstaining is ultimately equivocal. Only a firm vote against Jeremy Hunt would send the kind of message which the general public would understand.
Politics is a sensitive business, of course. If all Lib Dem MPs chose to back Labour the coalition would be seriously destabilised.
That is the dilemma faced by the coalition's junior party: their actions now will determine the pace at which this government's unity unravels ahead of the 2015 general election. None of us know for certain whether Clegg's call on today's vote is the right one. Perhaps that's because there's no right answer: all have disadvantages, all will damage the Lib Dems. Yet again, the junior party finds itself unhappily forced to compromise.
Instead of just sitting back and focusing on getting this coalition through to 2015, the Liberal Democrats need to shape their actions now around their prospects in the next parliament. Any other course will lead to disaster - for that brick wall is slowly getting nearer and nearer.
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