Jeremy Brier: It's not the leader that's the problem, it's the party
So, Gordon Brown called off the election and another Lib Dem leader falls victim to a bottle. The question now is in which direction does the Big Yellow (Ugly) Bird wants to fly? Left or right? Orange Book or Velvet Revolution? 18 points or (wait for it!) 22 points? Or rather: Who cares?
What the last two years have showed us is not that there is some sort of interesting philosophical debate about the future of the Liberal Democrats but that, rather, there is none. The Lib Dems have no core ideology, no "theme". They cannot persuade people to vote for them for any positive reason; resurrecting at election times largely out of public protest or apathy, rarely out of public embrace. They are not, like the Conservatives in 2005, in need of re-branding. They are in need of re-banding.
The first insurmountable problem which the Liberal Democrats face is that their policies do not belong together for any discernible reason. They are either hugely populist (opposition to war; tuition fees) or hugely unpopular (European integration; proportional representation). They are avowedly small state liberal when it comes to civil liberties; but clearly big state federalist when it comes to the European Union. Do they stand for or despise Middle Britain? Do they support the family? Do they believe in low or high taxes? The answer appears to be that they all think differently. It's fine to be a broad church; but most people in the Labour or Conservative church at least know why they're in the congregation.
Furthermore, in testing times internationally, the Liberal Democrats will never be trusted to handle international relations or diplomacy. As I wrote on Conservative Home earlier this year, the Liberal Democrat instinct is relativist and self-doubting. Its tendencies are towards bureaucratic multilateralism, anti-American gesture politics and the drawing of moral equivalence between terrorism and the fight against terror. Such approaches offer no effective answers to the major foreign policy challenges of the age. Iraq will not achieve the stability it deserves (and which we owe it) if we pull out our troops while its own institutions remain embryonic; Iran will not be prevented from building up a nuclear arsenal by relying on European Union diplomacy; and further African genocides will hardly be prevented by more unresolved resolutions from the disparate talking-shop of the United Nations.
I know the Liberal Democrats have some strong local footholds but the reality is that, as a party, as an entity which presumably exists to affect change, they have no influence internationally, and a very limited amount domestically. It's not about personalities; it's about politics. If you don't exist for a compelling reason, and you can't tell the electorate why you exist, the (probably accurate) suspicion develops that they are not there to promote a core set of convictions; rather you are simply there for yourselves; or, worse still, because you are there because you just are. A once promising "middle way" party has become a now otiose hotchpotch.
Two years, two leaders: one spent most his time completely out of it; the other was an alcoholic. But it's not the personalities that need to wake up and smell the coffee, it's the Liberal Democrat Party as a whole. What do they want to be when they grow up? The sensible Orange Book brigade should probably sign up to Cameron's Conservatives (sorry: it will make the conference bar more boring, but we should try and make them welcome) and the dreary old sandal-wearers should go off and join Gordon's big tent just like their old socialist heroine Shirley Williams. Then at least voters would know where everyone stood. And we wouldn't have to endure any more of these tedious leadership elections.