Despite being on holiday this past week, the fact that we stayed in the UK meant that I was exposed to more of the Liberal Democrat conference than I'd have liked to. As far as I could tell (which is mainly from Channel 4 news bulletins), the mood of the conference was rather different in 2011 than 2010. Last year there were significant rebellions against coalition policy - particularly on free schools. This year, a threatened rebellion against the NHS privatisation bill didn't get off the ground (the motion to hold a debate on the bill got more than 50% of delegate votes but didn't get the two-thirds it needed to pass).
There appears to have been a shift in how most of the Lib Dems are perceiving and positioning themselves. Last year, they were a sell-out and a prop for the Tories and they knew it. The squirming embarrassment of Vince Cable over tuition fees was the foremost example of this. The party looked to be heading for some kind of collective brain seizure.
But now... it's rather different. Sure, Huhne and Cable's speeches hit out tokenistically at the extreme right of the Tory party but overall there was suprisingly little criticism of the Tories. Instead, all the most stinging criticism was reserved for Labour. Clegg was particularly scathing - something that Ed Miliband will welcome, I think. After all, the experience of the AV referendum shows that these days the public normally does the exact opposite of what Nick Clegg says.
Last year I had pigeonholed the Lib Dems as spineless collaborators, unable to speak up for their progressive instincts because they had signed a Faustian pact with those bastard Tories. But now... they're still collaborators, but for the most part, WILLING collaborators. They actually BELIEVE in the shit policies they are foisting on the public.
Even Vince Cable - who give a similar cardboard cut-out "radical" speech to last year - is pursuing an extreme right deregulatory agenda at BIS. And Vince is certainly the extreme left wing edge of Lib Dems in government. The others are much worse.
Are the activists swallowing this shit? I think, by and large, they are. There is disquiet (as the NHS vote showed) but not enough to upset the applecart (again, as the NHS vote showed). The Social Liberal Forum - which is the social democratic fringe of the Lib Dems - doesn't have the numbers or the parliamentary leadership to challenge Clegg, and seems reluctant to split off from the rest of the party. There is probably also a sample selection effect going on here; many of the Lib Dems who were pissed off with the decision to go in with the Tories left in May 2010 or soon after, to join Labour or the Greens. Likewise, the Lib Dems claimed that thousands of new members signed up in the wake of the coalition deal... these will have been right-wingers, almost certainly. (I don't know what's happened to Lib Dem membership recently... some people said the conference hall looked a bit sparsely attended but that could have been because they'd hired a bigger venue than previous years? I don't know).
So basically, this is becoming (or has become) a right-wing party indistinguishable from the Tory mainstream except for a few issues: Europe, civil liberties, and maybe crime and national security.
Which means, more or less, that the advent of the "ConDems" has moved us from a political system with one right-wing party and two centre-left wing parties to a system with one left-wing party(at least in theory) and two right-wing parties. (Plus the Greens, UKIP and the Nationalists, of course). Under first past the post, it seems to me that Labour is the likely beneficiary of this shift. The Lib Dems will find it very hard next time round to take any votes off Labour from the left of the spectrum, as Charles Kennedy did with some success in 2005. Nor will they easily be able to rely on the more nebulous "new politics" schtick which produced the Cleggmania bubble of 2015. Instead, they will be out there at stage right, fighting to make the Tories look as reactionary as possible while copying their economic arguments and anti-Labour rhetoric...
So, from "Fib Dems" to "Glib Dems" it is, then. The Lib Dems have made their choice... it's a right-of-centre party from now on. They have gambled on shifting the political centre of gravity so far to the right that there will be room for two right-wing parties to co-exist successfully in future elections. Can this strategy work? The polls at the moment suggest there's no way in hell (and that's without boundary changes, of which more another time). But there is still a long way to go before 2015, and my new prediction is that the coalition will last until then... because many of the people in the Lib Dems who could take it down have already left.