For Britain's Lib Dems, Power Has its Problems

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Phil Noble / Reuters

Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, embraces his wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez after delivering his speech at his party's conference in Liverpool, northern England, September 20, 2010.

The clouds hung so low over Liverpool that their payload of rain barely had time to form drops before landing and dissolving into rivulets that ran down necks and noses. A tented security area in front of the northern English city's convention center was proving inadequate shelter for the numbers of delegates seeking entry to an opening session of the Liberal Democrats' annual conference on Sept. 18. This was the first such confab since the party ended more than 60 years in the wilderness of opposition politics in May to enter government in coalition with Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives. "I thought this was supposed to be big-tent politics," quipped one delegate.

Throughout the five-day convention that followed, Lib Dem activists politely deplored the inconveniences occasioned by beefed-up security and swollen attendances. "We're all learning quickly the difference between being in government and in opposition," said party leader Nick Clegg in an address to a rally for voting reform, his conference debut in his new — and, to his party's grassroots, not uncontroversial — incarnation as Britain's Deputy Prime Minister. Notices on the doors to the auditorium warned that the rally involved "loud noises, explosions and flashing lights," and the event indeed ended with a brief eruption of fireworks over the podium. Accredited media, our contingent distended by more than 60% compared to the party's pre-power 2009 conference, came to Liverpool anticipating loud noises and explosions on the conference floor. There were none.

There's no doubt a wide strain of Liberal Democrat voters questions Clegg's wisdom in making a pact with the Conservatives. A ComRes poll for the Sept. 19 Independent on Sunday newspaper found that 40% of Lib Dem voters would have "voted differently" if they had known about the Tory coalition. At the rally, Tim Farron, an MP hoping to be elected Lib Dem president next month, wittily pointed to the shared locus of anguish. "I have something in common with the Tories," he said. "I joined my party because of Margaret Thatcher." The iron lady may seem like ancient history — she left office in 1990 — but she remains a potent symbol of everything the Lib Dems believe they stand against. "I find the Tories distasteful," says a Lib Dem councilor. "I've spent my whole life campaigning against the Tories. I have to work with the Tories [in local government] and the ones I know I find more distasteful than the ones I don't."

Thatcher's bracing regime of belt-tightening, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps politics left the U.K. in better economic shape but also bruised and polarized. Many Britons over a certain age perceive in Cameron's apparently smoother, softer Conservatism a veneer concealing impulses closely akin to Thatcher's rougher, tougher brand. Liberal Democrats worry that the participation of their socially liberal, instinctively libertarian party in the coalition is providing the Tories with shelter to force through an austerity package more painful than anything Thatcher ever essayed. That's why Clegg, returning to the main stage of the conference for his keynote speech on Monday, sought to defuse fears that "the cuts we are making are somehow taking Britain back to the 1980s." He added: "Yes it will be difficult, but it will not be like the 80s. We will not let that happen. We will make these cuts as fairly as possible."

Clegg's assurances did little to quell unease or to stop a modest flow of Lib Dems tearing up their memberships, but a massed rebellion among the ranks at conference was never really on the cards. That's partly because Lib Dems are the most genteel of all British political animals. A core characteristic of the party, diluted but not destroyed by association with the Tories, is that members consider themselves to be on the side of the angels and comport themselves accordingly. But the majority of the Lib Dem activists who attend conference — one delegate contrasts these activists with a large cohort he calls "armchairs," the party's less committed and constructive, but no less vocal, supporters — also accept that Clegg and the rest of the leadership had little choice after Britons returned a hung parliament but to explore a deal with the Tories. "Imagine if we had turned away," Clegg told his audience. "How could we ever again have asked the voters to take us seriously?"

The Liberal Democrats have always sought national office. Now they hold national office. The party has long argued for voting reforms promoting the kind of coalition politics designed to foster grown-up, consensual politics. Now Clegg is second-in-command in the nation's first coalition since World War II and will lead the Yes campaign ahead of a May 2011 referendum on reforming the Britain's electoral system. "What has happened is something we've been working towards for years," says Chris Huhne, Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

Of course, it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Government, especially coalition government, entails an inevitable loss of popularity and of innocence. The question tormenting Lib Dems is whether these losses will outweigh the legacy of office. The party's leaders have wrung compromises out of the Conservatives; they have also made compromises, especially on the speed and scale of the cuts designed to reduce Britain's debt. Delivering electoral reform would certainly help to mollify activists and armchairs, but this will be no small task with the Lib Dems' very own Conservative partners planning to spearhead a campaign urging rejection of the Lib Dems' dream.

The referendum on voting reform is scheduled to take place on the same day in May as elections to some municipalities in England and Wales, the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies and the Scottish parliament. The history of British coalitions provides mixed augurs for the Lib Dems' likely performance. The party hemorrhaged support after joining Westminster coalitions in the first half of the 20th century. A more recent coalition with the Labour party in Scotland saw support for Lib Dems rise at subsequent polls. A poor performance by the Liberal Democrats in the local elections would stoke anxieties that the party's Westminster adventures threaten to undermine its power bases elsewhere and to fatally weaken it in the longer term.

On the morning of Sept. 21, with two full days of conference business still to go, Clegg left for New York City to attend the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Summit as Britain's top representative. The coalition has pledged to ring-fence Britain's aid budget from the forthcoming cuts and Clegg will tell the closing plenary session of the summit on Wednesday that his government "inherited a £156 billion ($240 billion) budget deficit, so increasing our international aid budget is not an uncontroversial decision."

"Isn't it rather ironic that [Clegg] is going all the way to New York to attend the summit to discuss (in very grand surroundings) how to end poverty, when he himself is involved in policies that are going to put more people into poverty," said one poster on the influential community website Mumsnet ahead of his trip. "It's a funny old world." Under fire for being the most successful Lib Dem leader in living memory, Clegg must surely agree with that last sentiment.