Second-to-last in the Infants

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September 4, 2012 by Jake Cantona

Homonyms are words which although sounding the same are spelt differently and have different meanings. The Guardian, ever a source of joy when it comes to the obscure outposts of the English language and it’s mangling at the hands of both correspondents and readers used to regularly post homonymic errors in their Corrections and Clarifications.

You could therefore, as I did this week, misconstrue the phrase ‘whither the Liberal Democrats?’ It was spoken, posed as a question of where they should go from here, rather than an observation on their current state. Although the question does indeed find its answer in its homonymic echo.

The Liberal Democrats have been in power for the last two years as part of the Coalition government although you’d be hard pushed to see any evidence of this in terms of the manifesto commitments on which they were – albeit indirectly – elected. They have not enjoyed – if that’s the right word – this level of direct involvement in decision making since the post-war government of David Lloyd George. And that’s the post 1914-18 war government we’re talking about.

This lack of big match practise has been evident from the off and I’ll probably return to footballing clichés later on.  It became apparent very early on that the amount of time they’d spent on the sidelines had left them rusty. No particular coincidence that the two of the first minor problems to beset the government were Vince Cable being stitched up by the Telegraph for comments about Sky Broadcasting and David Laws having to resign for doing dodgy things with his rent claims. They just weren’t used to this level of attention and the need to be as scrupulous as possible in office. Or a bit more accomplished at not getting caught, it seems to amount to much the same thing.

It’s not that many years ago that Mark Oaten was confident enough in his anonymity to use his real name when procuring the services of a male prostitute. Since at the time he was shadowing the Home Office from the Lib Dem front bench, it exhibited an almost touching lack of belief in either his and/or his party’s ability to impact upon the arguments at hand and to make any impression on the public’s political consciousness.

You would have thought that that level of naivety was a thing of the past, particularly after all the scrutiny over MPs expenses during the last parliament. Apparently not.

They remind me thus far of nothing more or less than the little boy who pleads to be allowed to join in the game of football the bigger boys are playing. When, after what seems like a lifetime, the big boys relent and let them play, there’s no allowance for size or inexperience and whatever their ability to a talk a good game when watching from the touchline, it counts for nothing when the tackles start flying in and their bigger, more worldly team mates start putting them on the end of (privatised) hospital passes.

Even their first touch let them down, preferring to align themselves with the Conservatives when either a minority coalition with Labour or a non-alignment pact would arguably have been better. Certainly non-alignment would have presented them with a greater ability to use the balance of power to influence policy to obtain their professed manifesto goals. But they went into government with the Conservatives without obtaining control of any of the four major offices of state. Nick Clegg as Deputy PM, Chris Huhne as Environment Secretary. For fuck’s sake, I’m shit at cards but even I fancy my chances at a Lib Dem poker night. Did Clegg not recognise that the role of Deputy Prime Minister was essentially created by Tony Blair to keep John Prescott out of any more trouble than was absolutely unavoidable?

The Liberal Democrats are withering because they are in government, but they are not in government. As junior partners in a coalition they should be providing the checks and balances to what would otherwise be a Conservative administration. That they are not doing so, and that a growing proportion of the electorate view this government simply as a Conservative one underscores exactly how far short they are failing in this. Nick Clegg shares more than his initials with the outmanoeuvred, out-of-touch Neville Chamberlain coming back from Munich with little more than Hitler’s autograph and a chocolate teapot.

All the policies put forward by this government are essentially Conservative, any sops to the Lib Dems have either been strangled at birth or left to die of neglect. Which, I suppose provides a metaphorical link to the future of cradle-to-grave provision in the birthplace of the Welfare State.

Some of the more woolly optimists in the Lib Dem ranks might see the perception of this government as wholly Conservative as a silver-lined cloud come the next election, but as public opinion becomes more polarised the number of centre-left leaning voters who opted for them as either a protest vote or who voted tactically in attempts to oust Conservatives are going to disappear.

The Conservatives may well lose the next election, but one thing they will have achieved during this singularly unhappy time is the electoral obliteration of the Liberal Democrats at a national level. They could not have played the Lib Dems better if this had been their objective from the start, and I rather doubt it was. That illustrates how spectacularly inept Clegg and co’s performance has been.

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