THE BLOG

Clegg and the Lib Dems: Crisis or Opportunity?

08/10/2014 10:08 BST | Updated 06/12/2014 10:59 GMT

As the Lib Dem party conference comes to a close this week, all the major parties' thoughts will now move to an election footing. It's set to be one of the most fascinating and unpredictable periods in politics for decades.

There's no question that the rise of UKIP has thrown a spanner in the political merry-go-round; add in the complexities of coalition partners having to fight each other and it looks like this next election really will break all the rules.

Disraeli famously said that Britain does not like coalitions - and 150 years later he may still be right. Certainly the Lib Dems seem to be being punished for their part in the government. They struggle to get any credit for the good things happening in the economy and end up being blamed for the bad things.

I feel great sympathy for my old colleague Nick Clegg. Many of us expected a rough ride mid-term, but by now I thought his fortunes would turn as the party matured into government and the tough choices started to reap rewards. With the election looming I was confident that polling would pick up rather than head downwards.

So what can he do now?

He's tried a number of approaches. The weekly LBC phone-in shows him as open and approachable. Meanwhile, the attacks on the Tories show that the Lib Dems are prepared to speak independently and the apology on tuition fees was meant to heal that particular wound. But the problem is that the message is just not getting across.

The strategy of attacking the Conservatives has two flaws. Firstly, the public has never liked divided parties and the same may be true of divided coalitions. Secondly, as Cameron's popularity grows a better strategy might be to get closer to the PM rather than increasing the distance.

And despite his apology, the trust issue over tuition fees still remains a problem, not least because of the lack of clarity. I'm genuinely surprised at how many parents actually think they'll have to save up and pay £9,000. A government information campaign to explain how it really works might be more helpful than saying sorry for the policy U-turn.

But above all, the party needs a flag issue like the penny on education or the Iraq War. Something bold that sets it out above the pack.

And in fact, the NHS may just be that issue. The crisis is starting to build - and by next May stories of longer waiting times, another A&E crisis in the winter and continuing GP pressures may catapult health back to the top of the political agenda.

A bold and honest response is needed to the reality of a population living longer and needing better medical skills. The funding system as it is can't cope and it's time for a re think. Perhaps that means replacing national insurance with a health tax?

Of course a new tax is an enormous political risk. But it would be ring-fenced. It could be an open and honest response to what I think we all fear: the breakdown of the health service.

The crisis in the NHS needs a bold and brave political response. That's what the Lib Dems have always been good at and Nick should rise to the challenge.