Bernard Ingham: Indisciplined, disloyal and divided... why on earth would anyone vote for the Lib Dems?

NOBODY really knows, but on balance the modern soothsayers forecast that the Liberal Democrats will tomorrow hang on to Eastleigh in the by-election. If so, it will be a triumph of hope over experience – a positive denial of intelligence.

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of it will be the Labour candidate’s predicted fourth place behind Ukip. He deserves to come in 14th and last in this Grand National list of by-election runners for having regretted that the IRA did not kill Margaret Thatcher in the Brighton bombing.

But that is by the way. My main concern is to plumb the depths of the mentality of those voting Lib Dem these days. What on earth do they think the party has to offer?

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Let me be clear. I have no objection to voters who see their role in life as being to register a protest. It is a rather negative outlook, but there is a lot to protest about. It follows that it is perfectly respectable to maintain a third force, as it were, in British politics to make life difficult for the two major parties.

But the Lib Dems no longer see themselves as a third guerilla force. Rather, they regard themselves as a natural party of government – a permanent coalition partner. Indeed, probably as I write, Vince Cable is cultivating Ed Miliband about a Lib-Lab coalition after the next election. If so, have pity on poor young Ed.

It would be churlish, however, not to recognise that the Lib Dems have something going for them. Indeed, you could put it down to Thatcher. She so discredited socialism – as she intended – that Tony Blair felt obliged to try to detoxify Labour by getting rid of Clause Four and all that to govern from the centre, wherever that is.

In turn, David Cameron was impelled to try to detoxify the Conservatives, which even Tories as apparently balanced as Theresa May felt had been rendered “nasty” by Thatcher or, more accurately, by the Peter Mandelson/Alastair Campbell tarbrush.

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All this is compounded by the vice-like grip on policy of Gordon Brown’s mega-deficit. It proves conclusively that, whatever the parties may say, there is no alternative: they simply have to eliminate that deficit before we own ourselves again.

The result is that Britain is a conviction-free desert, a blasted heath of political positioning. Laughably, Miliband offers us the One Nation Party while Cameron, in a chronic state of coalitionitis, manoeuvres this way and that so that we all now wonder whether he stands for anything at all any more.

This is just the sort of soil in which the Lib Dems flourish, since they have never stood for anything except local advantage. It is difficult to see what else they could stand for since they encompass a swathe of humanity embracing beards and sandals that would not disgrace the outer reaches of Labour or the Green Party and the suits who might slot beautifully into the moderate Tory mindset if only they were not so determinedly eccentric.

Why on earth should any benighted Eastleighian give them a moment’s thought? After all, they would not be facing a by-election had they not been miserably let down by their Lib Dem MP, Chris Huhne, now awaiting sentence for trying to pervert the course of justice. In government they have been about as disloyal a partner as they could be without breaking up the coalition. Indeed, I would argue they have proved themselves generally, if not individually, unsuited to the disciplines of government. This is why I pity Miliband if he ever gets into bed with them.

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And now we have Nick Clegg enthusiastically leading them to become the Tax Party. He has even told the elderly that if they want to avoid a mansion tax on their £2m home they should sell up. This is how the Lib Dem class warriors propose to reward thrift, investment and the very people who lead the nation forward.

Worse still, he has his eyes on taxing spare land around “mansions.” And some bright sparks in his party are even canvassing the idea of taxing, long before death duties, possessions such as jewellery, heirlooms and paintings. They also have their eyes on slashing by one-third to £1m the tax threshold for pension pots. They clearly could not care less about wealth-creating Middle Britain. This is why a Lib Dem victory in Eastleigh tomorrow would be a positive denial of intelligence. After nearly three years, we have had enough of them in government.