JULY 2011

To have been a Liberal Democrat must have been a wonderful thing.

All day long cheques could be written that would never be cashed and positions of gloriously impracticable purity and pomposity could be struck in the sure and certain knowledge that money would never have to follow where the mouth led.

All that changed, changed utterly, in May 2010 and that strange multicoloured push me/pull you beast branded as the “coalition” slouched towards the floral garden behind Downing Street and a new national order was born.

Now many of us on the Labour benches have studied the self righteous Liberals for many years and the current spectacle is as fascinating to us as it would have been to a Victorian anthropologist – or Margaret Meade – and it is possible to feel a slight stirring of sympathy for the once obscure tribe of self obsessed herbivores whose natural habitat of dense irrelevance has been ripped away and who now find themselves thrust into an unwelcome and unwanted role as human shields for a bunch of secretly sniggering public school boys who just can’t believe their luck.

Different tendencies and groupings are emerging in that every changing gloop that is Liberalism and from our benches the absence of bandannas and designer trainers doesn’t mean that we are at a loss to identify the gangs of new politics.

Some have hurled themselves into the blue maw of Conservatism with an indecent enthusiasm and give every indication of never being able to return home to the spun hemp yurt of their innocent days. There seems no way back for Andrew Stunnell, Michael Moore, Mark Hunter, David Laws, Norman Lamb, Nick Harvey, Duncan Hames, David Heath, Alistair Carmichael, Ed Davey, Sarah Teather, Danny Alexander, Paul Burstow, Jeremy Browne, Lynne Featherstone, Sarah Teather and Norman Baker.

Nick Clegg may be seen as a special case in that he seems destined to slide effortlessly into some marvellous senior European Parliamentary sinecure that will keep the wolf from the door and allow him to retain a little of the power that once intoxicated him to the point of Dionysian madness.  Mr.Laws has his own unique circumstances to attend to and so, in an entirely different direction, does Vince Cable. A boardroom beckons for both, I suspect!

Others of the Liberal tribe once throve in the damp and the semi subterranean darkness of Liberal politics and now they shrivel in the disinfecting sunlight.

We shall not dwell overlong on the exotic  circumstances surrounding John Hemming, Chris Huhne  and Mike Hancock for each is individual in his way and the serene self satisfied smugness of Simon Hughes ensures that a career as an especially vacillatory curate is available should he need to be rescued from the inevitable deluge in May 2015.

Again we see some moving ever closer to the Treasury bench.

When Gordon Birtwhistle was elected to represent the burgers of Burnley on a temporary basis he wore the high street equivalent of a two piece boiler suit and muttered much of his time as a Labour councillor and one who knew what Swarfega was for.

Now he is channelling his inner St. John-Stevas in a riotous display of burgundy striped shirts, Tory braces and elegant suitings while occupying the PPS’s place behind his Minister. I fear he is lost to the Rochdale tradition of Liberalism and tripe.

Others seem pulled towards the flickering light of the ministerial presence but have clearly not fully abandoned their individuality or entirely sold their souls.

Alan Beith and Malcolm Bruce are probably above criticism in that they occupy the same moral heights as Sir Menzies Campbell so they do not need to shuffle closer to the Mace.

Tom Brake and Andrew George have not sealed the Faustian pact and may well not be part of the grand coalition come the fag end of this Parliament. I suspect that John Leech, Adrian Sanders, John Pugh, Alan Reid and the eternal irritant that is Bob Russell may also have drifted away but – with Bob Russell – you just never know. Logic and consistency are not issues here.

Robert Smith seems to be acting the loyal lieutenant (or more likely Brevet Major in his case) and heaven help anyone who tries to calculate the possible actions of John Thurso.

Some of the newer members have yet to massively impress the House with the force of their personalities or expression of their coalition loyalty and I have to include Simon Wright, David Ward, Ian Swales, Stephen Lloyd, Stephen Gilbert and Mike Crockart in this category.

Space prevents my deconstructing Don Foster or confirming the high level of rebel potential we see in Tim Farron while Martin Horwood just seems to want to go back to how things were. He seems to be longing to photograph abandoned sofas and harass the council until it is moved. Duncan Hames shows promise but it seems all but impossible for him to hold Chippenham if the expected boundary changes materialise.

The ones to watch are, of course, the Great Kennedy (who is capable of absolutely anything – even a return to social democracy), Tessa Munt who is interestingly idiosyncratic and shows some sign of an enduring conscience, Julian Huppert, the Mister Tumnus of Middle Cambridge, Jenny Willottt (she actually seems to have analysed the welfare proposals and is recoiling in constructive horror) and the sounding board that is Tim Farron. If someone like the almost saintly but currently corrupted Alistair Carmichael to break ranks and support a Farron putsch then the Liberals are back where they always end up after coalition with the Conservatives.

Split into irreconcilable factions. That is the lesson of history and the most likely prospect for the great adventure that was launched amidst the soggy sentiment and scented roses of May 2010. Never again – at least until the next corrosive coalition that cheers the Cons and crushes the confused.