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How do you solve a problem like the Liberal Democrats?

After one day off, Nick Wood's High Noon column is back.

LIBERAL-DEMOCRATS At the last election, the Liberals polled 22 per cent of the vote and secured 62 seats. Currently, according to ConservativeHome's poll of polls, they are scoring 20 per cent and seem on course to secure a similar number of MPs.

So how is David Cameron going to gain the 116 seats he needs for an overall majority?

It seems reasonable to assume that Cameron can pick up around 100 extra seats from Labour. But that still leaves him nearly 20 short of the magic 326 figure. The logic appears to be that unless the Conservatives make major inroads into the Liberal bloc of seats, gaining around 20 constituencies, Cameron will end up as leader of the largest single party in a hung Parliament.

Worse, today's survey of 96 marginal seats by ICM for the News of the World suggests that the Lib Dems' share of the vote has risen 5 points since January and that most of their progress has been at the expense of the Conservatives.

I have my doubts about the reliability of marginal seat polls since the average number of voters polled per constituency is only about 10.

But the arithmetic does suggest that the most critical contest in this campaign is not between Cameron and Brown; it is between Cameron and Clegg. This is a particularly ominous thought since in an uncharacteristic flash of generosity, Cameron has agreed to Clegg taking part in all three of the Leader's debates, the first of which is on Thursday.

All Clegg has to do is declare a plague on both your houses and pose as the moderate voice of reason in the centre - a posture that tends to go down well with decent, middle class Brits.

Party chairman Eric Pickles has been pursuing the strategy of "love-bombing" the Lib Dems, seeking to persuade their supporters or potential supporters, that Cameron's modern Conservatives are just as green, socially concerned, community based, globally engaged and generally liberal in outlook. In short, beards and sandals are us.

But to many people this must seem an implausible proposition. Eric is cuddly, indeed lovable, and if he ever were to self-explode, he would make a mighty bang. But in the heat of an election campaign, when the two main parties are inevitably kicking lumps out of each other - and when tribal loyalties necessarily intervene - is Mr Pickles really going to persuade wobbly centre ground voters - worried about just about everything from saving the planet to saving their local bus-stop - that David Cameron is really Nick Clegg's older and wiser brother?

Perhaps he will. But I doubt it. And my impression is that candidates with the thankless task of challenging a Lib Dem incumbent doubt it too.

At the last election, I advised a Tory challenger up against a tediously smug and assiduous Lib Dem MP. We had a simple message, rammed home every day in leaflets and local newspaper ads. A vote for Charles Kennedy was a vote for Tony Blair. It worked a treat in Ludlow in Shropshire, turning a 1,600 Liberal majority into a 2,000-vote winning margin for the Tories.

In today's parlance, that means hammering home the message that if you want five more years of Gordon Brown, you should vote for that inoffensive Mr Clegg. Because for all the Liberal pirouetting on what they would do in a hung Parliament, everyone knows they are closer in spirit and practice to Labour.

The Liberals are Labour without the reality check of exercising power and being held accountable. For all the faults of Labour's union links, the party is grounded in the real world. It knows that ultimately the job of a political party is to win power then get things done. Labour's union, council, public sector and, increasingly tenuous, business links act as a drag anchor on some of its more crackpot elements.

But no such constraints inhibit the Lib Dems. The eternal teenagers of politics, led by a man resembling an earnest sixthformer, they are like a vast hot-air balloon, floating dangerously close to cloud-cuckoo land.

So there is not much point attacking their policies, since they have millions of them, almost all of which contradict each other. Nor have they a track record in power they can be called upon to defend, unless of course they run the local council.

But they can be exposed for what they are - Labour's whackier and more left-wing cousins - who can be relied upon only to posture, preen and pontificate.

In a hung Parliament, they would be lethal to Cameron's hopes of taking a grip of the country and putting it back on track, even if, as I suspect, they would seek to sabotage his efforts rather than bring him down quickly and plunge us into a second election.

On the doorstep, candidates facing Lib Dem MPs are making the simple point that if people want real change, they should vote Conservative, not mess about with a third party itching to jump into bed with Labour.

Isn't it time for the Tory high command to unleash M&C Saatchi on that nice Mr Clegg?

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners Ltd.

> Friday's LeftWatch: Cabinet Minister, Andrew Adonis, argues that Labour and Liberal Democrats are natural coalition allies

> Please support ConHome's Yellow To Blue fundraising campaign for Tory candidates taking on LibDem MPs 


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