Is there a secret Lib Dem plan for another coalition with the Tories?

The election for party political activists on social media is a rather different beast from the election as anyone normal might experience it. It’s a world of impenetrable memes combined with breathless speculation, mixed with candidatitis-inspired peaks of the greatest hope and troughs of the deepest despair. It’s very easy for tight in-groups to form within these circumstances, and for a belief to quickly circulate and be adopted as true by those groups without any evidence for it.

One belief that I’ve seen circulated widely is that Jo Swinson wants nothing more than to take the Lib Dems into another coalition with the Conservatives and this explains everything about Lib Dem strategy. See, for instance, this (it’s the most recent example of it I’ve seen):

Yes, this (and so much worse) was an actual campaign that people thought was a good idea (source: Independent)

First, it’s always worth considering that a badly executed campaign strategy might just be a badly executed campaign strategy. If you’ve seen such previous Lib Dem highlights as somehow managing to lose seats in 2010, or 2015’s “Stability. Unity. Decency.” debacle, then the idea that the party might not be the greatest at running general election campaigns isn’t too outlandish. From what I’ve seen the 2019 Lib Dem campaign’s main thrust is a don’t-scare-the-horses strategy with a “plague on your both your houses” message and overall air of trying to project centrist stability and competence in a system that’s lacking them.

Part of that strategy involves pointing out that the choice between Johnson and Corbyn for Prime Minister is a terrible one and insisting both are so bad, the party couldn’t support either of them in a hung Parliament. It’s rational on the surface, but fails to take account of the different response it gets from the two sides. “We won’t work with Johnson” gets a Tory shrug and a “like we care, we’re going for a majority” response, while “we won’t work with Corbyn” creates a lot more antipathy with Labour activists who remember Lib Dem attacks on other Labour leaders as well as the coalition and jump to the conclusion that as (from their perspective at least) there are only two possible outcomes to this election, to not support one means to support the other.

The problem for the Liberal Democrats is that beyond “stop Brexit” and “no deals with anyone”, nothing else has cut through from the party’s messaging so far at this election. It’s hard to run a campaign like Clegg’s in 2010 if you don’t get invited to the debates to call down the plague on both their houses.

So no, the Lib Dem campaign isn’t based on a secret plan to back the Tories on December 13th, it’s just misfiring, but there’s a further problem with that idea which reveals a wider problem with the way a lot of people on all sides look at politics.

The problem is that there’s very little attention paid to how parties run, and what procedures they’re governed by. Much of the media assumes that the Tory model of leadership — “absolute monarchy, tempered by regicide” to use William Hague’s most notable phrase — applies to all parties and that party leaders are free to decide whatever they want, and the party will jump into line behind them. Unfortunately for this narrative, that model doesn’t apply outside of the Tories and the even more autocratic structures of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

So, for instance, anyone claiming that “come 13 December, if Boris Johnson phones up Jo Swinson and asks her to prop up a minority Tory Government, she will listen to his nonsense and agree to do so” is a credible way to create a new coalition might want to look at Article 23 of the Liberal Democrat Constitution (it’s all online, so anyone wanting to claim to be an expert on how the Liberal Democrats work can actually read it). I’m not going to go through the whole process in detail, but one lesson learned from 2010 was that coalition agreements — and even ones just to give confidence and supply to another party — are potentially deadly for the party, and the procedures around them needed to be tightened up.

What that means in practice is that any coalition negotiations for the Liberal Democrats require the leader to jump through a whole series of party committee hoops repeatedly during any negotiations (if there are any in December, you’ll all get bored of the phrase “reference group” very quickly) and then has to persuade a party conference not just to support a deal, but to do so by a two-thirds majority — and Liberal Democrat conferences are open to all members to attend and vote. I genuinely can’t see at this point what possible deal with either Conservatives or Labour would be likely to get even a bare majority at such a conference, let alone a two-thirds one. The memories of the series of disasters that was the coalition are still strong amongst the membership, and I don’t know anyone in the party with any sort of desire to contemplate the prospect of attempting to work with the current Conservative Party.

Sometimes things are just cockups and not conspiracies, especially when the nefarious secret plans of your purported conspiracy are actually incapable of being delivered.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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