Much of the reporting from the Liberal Democrat conference has focused on how confident Nick Clegg seems.
It’s not difficult to see why - he’s the party leader with the best chance of being in government after the next Election.
Hang on, you say - surely the Liberal Democrats are on course for a good drubbing? Aren’t they currently in fourth place in the opinion polls on less than half the share of the vote that they achieved at the last Election? Yes they are, but the Deputy Prime Minister still has a good chance of clinging on to his Ministerial red box.
First, although the Liberal Democrats are likely to get a significantly smaller share of the vote next time, they’re very unlikely to suffer a similar-sized reduction in their number of MPs. Whatever voters think of the Liberal Democrats as a party, they tend to have a very positive view of their local Liberal Democrat MP. We’ve seen the same effect in local council elections throughout this Parliament - the Lib Dems have done much, much better in wards where they have an incumbent defending his or her seat than in wards where they are in second or third place.
Second, say the Liberal Democrats only suffer a small reduction in their number of MPs from the current 57 to the low 40s - in such circumstances, there’s a good chance they’ll hold the balance of power. With the latest polls showing Labour and Conservatives neck and neck compared with a 14 point Labour lead a year ago, the economy improving and his own ratings at an all time low, it seems very unlikely that Ed Miliband is going to secure an overall majority for Labour. But with the electoral system rigged against the Conservatives and Labour almost certain to poll higher than it did in 2010 thanks to the disaffected Liberal Democrats it has won over, it is going to be difficult for David Cameron to win an overall majority too.
So at the moment the smart money is on another hung Parliament. When you look at it that way, no wonder Nick Clegg seems so chipper.
But I am not sure the Liberal Democrats are wise to advertise this fact as they have been doing all week.
Nick Clegg was honest enough to admit that the Liberal Democrats have no chance of winning the next Election outright. He’s banking on another coalition. But while he may think coalition is a good thing, that “the absolute worst” result at the next Election would be a majority government for one of the two main parties, the British people take a very different view. According to a poll for ITV News by ComRes, just 10 per cent of the electorate want a coalition government of any kind after the next Election. 67 per cent want a majority government.
And by making it clear that he’s happy to do a deal with Conservatives or Labour as long as it keeps him in office, he’s sending a clear message to Liberal Democrat supporters who prefer David Cameron as Prime Minister to Ed Miliband and live in either Conservative/Liberal Democrat marginals or Conservative/Labour marginals like Croydon Central – the only way they can be sure of keeping Ed Miliband (and Ed Balls) out of Downing Street is by voting Conservative.
I’m not sure if that’s the message he was trying to communicate but I for one am very grateful.
PS Nick Clegg also chose to portray himself as the man who has said no to various Conservative policies. Again, I’m really not sure it’s in his interest to own up to being the person who is stopping the Government bringing some sense to the human rights debate or making further savings in the bloated welfare budget, but for this too I am duly grateful.