'Coalitions, although successful, have always found this, that their triumph has been brief... England does not love coalitions.' Benjamin Disraeli, 16 December 1852
As the Lib Dems' annual get-together reaches an end, tarnished by vitriol as persistent in opinion polls as newspaper editorials, it has appeared for some time that Disraeli had a point. Nick Clegg may feel rightly aggrieved that a coalition he continues to see as courageous and necessary - for both his party and the country at large - now seems to be an unheralded disaster.
The historical decision to create Britain's first multi-party government since 1951 has laid his leadership, at one time at Churchillian proportions of popularity, bare to unconstrained abuse political leaders are open to when blood can be smelt. The inevitable comparisons to the depths of popularity suffered by the venerable but unfortunate Michael Foot, always raked out on such occasions, provide what must surely be the death knell for Clegg's leadership. Whether he staggers on till the next general election or not, pollsters and analysts alike agree that leaders do not recover from popularity this low.
Yet in truth, Liberal Democrats have kept their part of the deal better than they could ever have dreamed before office. Indeed their voters should be relieved to know that some 75% of their manifesto is being enacted into government policy. Academic research from the University of Essex has found that 'on the basis of overall left-right placement, the agreement was closer to the Liberal Democrat manifesto than to the Conservative one'. For any coalition partner, particularly a junior one, this should be seen as an overarching triumph. However their chairman Tim Farron's notion this week, that their negotiators should receive a 'nine out of 10' for their efforts in extracting Lib Dem policy from the Conservatives, would be seen as laughable by the vast majority. Voters now see Nick Clegg as fundamentally dishonest and untrustworthy, with a net trust score of -49%, that seems driven in great part by just one element of the Lib Dem's forgotten 25% of policies.
The decision to repeal their pledge on tuition fees is widely seen as the defining factor that triggered Liberal Democrat support to stagnate, decline, then stagnate to greater depths. From the 25% post-election high - Disraeli's 'brief triumph' if you will - support has slumped by about two-thirds, standing at 8% in some polling. Their broken tuition fee pledge has been cruelly held up as emblematic of Liberal Democrat's disavowal of their fundamental principles. Simplistically dismissing a party in coalition on one broken pledge is, objectively, a bit harsh given the inherent characteristics of power sharing. Yet it is the way the Liberal Democrats have been judged by vast swathes on their former supporters.
Liberal Democrats object that tuition fee abolition was not one of their front-page headline promises of their manifesto. That does not wash with a student body irreversibly disillusioned with the party, of whom only 7% not support a party previously bolstered by their support. A poll by the NUS found just one in 10 students are at all swayed by Clegg's apology that preceded their conference in Brighton. The tuition policy was never a red line or priority in any potential coalition talks, and senior figures in the party such as Danny Alexander and Clegg were internally opposed to the policy. That this was never openly expressed to the electorate was a mistake. In future the Liberal Democrats, as a perennial feature in coalition government and coalition government alone, will have to be far more open in their priorities- and far more politically astute in their policy making.
A key area of retrospective judgement on this coalition will be whether it proves that they work. A key lesson has been that the British public is often disinterested with a wider, objective picture - instead they make snap judgements of leaders based largely upon perceptions of competence and honesty. Future party manifestos must adjust to a fundamental but unspoken rule of British politics - that political and economic circumstance dictates what is left on the cutting table.
The electorate needs to accept this reality, especially if coalition governments become more prevalent, as Vince Cable believes and hopes. Paddy Power see no overall majority at the next election to be a fairly tempting 13/8 likelihood. Therefore, the adjustment towards parties dumping policies not prioritised in a short post-election wrestling match will need to be swift. The British media will not allow for the months of inter party negotiation that occur throughout Europe, where multi-party governments have always been prevalent. For us to learn to 'love coalitions' we need to accept that, ever increasingly, politicians will not be able to keep their word- certainly not all of them in any case. As Benjamin Disraeli once said, 'in politics, nothing is contemptible'. Good luck selling that, folks.