Imagine you’re in a small boat, heading towards what you know will be a fearsome storm. Your young captain assures you that it’ll all be fine, and that on the other side of the storm, the seas are calm, the sky is blue and the sun shines brightly.
Out in front is a much bigger boat – you’re following it because your captain is determined that it knows where it’s going as it ploughs through the heavy seas. “I’ve discussed it with their captain,” he tells you. “We’ve agreed on the course we’ve set and I’m committed to it.”
Now you know what it feels like to be a Liberal Democrat. Captain Clegg tells you to hold your nerve as the clouds gather – but how brave are you? When I spoke to Lib Dem delegates at their party conference in Liverpool this week, it wasn’t fear that I saw in their eyes, but I’m not sure it was bravery either.
For now, most of them are prepared to trust Captain Clegg. He’s convinced them, for now, that he knows what he’s doing. But how fierce will the storm be when the public spending cuts begin to bite? And will their supporters on the quayside still be there, waving their flags and cheering, when the good ship Lib Dem limps into port?
(I’m not sure how much longer I can keep this metaphor going, but bear with me for one more paragraph.) And what about the big Labour ship, which hasn’t left port for months? Once one of the Captains Miliband takes control, will it head off in an entirely different direction – or at least at a much slower speed – avoiding the storm and making it back home long before you do, and in much better shape?
End of metaphor. In fact, I found the Lib Dems in Liverpool to be in pretty good heart. They like being in government at a national level, even though many of them already have experience of being in office either at a local level or in Scotland. Lib Dem ministers making policy announcements from the conference platform are an exciting novelty in a party that hasn’t had a taste of national power for 65 years.
And yet. They look at the opinion polls and they fear what’s coming. In local elections (and Scottish and Welsh elections) next May, perhaps in the midst of strikes by public sector workers furious about job cuts, will the Lib Dems lose hundreds of council seats? Will they even lose the referendum on a new voting system, that glittering prize which Nick Clegg won in return for signing up with the Tories?
And will they then ask themselves what they’re getting out of this coalition deal? Yes, they can tell voters that they have played a part in government at a national level, but what if that government becomes deeply unpopular, and Labour basks in the sunshine of opposition under a new and energetic leader?
Here’s what top Lib Dems say in response. First, we can already show that we have done good things in government (tax concessions for the low paid; an end to ID cards and DNA data base records; a bank levy; a Freedom Bill); second, remember that the spending cuts will be phased in over five years, so it won’t be as if a mammoth sword of Damocles comes smashing down immediately after George Osborne’s spending announcement next month.
And third, in the handful of local council by-elections they have contested since they entered the coalition, they haven’t been slaughtered.
But are they at risk of losing their identity? Could Nick Clegg’s speech to the party conference on Monday have been delivered by David Cameron, as some delegates grumbled? A lot of it probably could have been, although not the line when he said that he still thinks that the war in Iraq was illegal.
So what do the Lib Dems want? Nick Clegg is telling them that in government they can make a real difference. (“I still believe in our commitments to the developing world. The difference is I get to make those commitments at a UN summit and make them happen. I still campaign for political reform. The difference is I’m now legislating for it as well.”)
That’s the nice bit. The nasty bit is what voters might think if the Osborne Plan for reviving the UK economy doesn’t work. Before the election, Nick Clegg said he didn’t believe that the spending cuts the Conservatives were planning would be justified. “Do I think that these big, big cuts are merited or justified at a time when the economy is struggling to get to its feet? Clearly not.”
The big question over the coming months is whether voters decide he was right then – or is right now.