Yesterday, on the quiet, Nick Clegg scrapped the Liberal Democrats' long-standing commitment to reform Britain's electoral system. So it appears, anyway, from his speech to the party's spring conference in Liverpool. He may not have meant to do it, but the following paragraph, buried in the middle of a 50-minute note-free oration, destroys the long-held liberal hope of a fairer voting system:
The day before I was elected leader, Mr Cameron suggested we join them, he talked about a “progressive alliance”. This talk of alliances comes up a lot, doesn’t it? Everyone wants to be in our gang. So I want to make something very clear today. Will I ever join a Conservative government? No. Will I ever join a Labour government? No. I will never allow the Liberal Democrats to be a mere annex to another party's agenda.
I may be very naïve, but I had always been under the impression that Lib Dems were in favour of coalition government, on a matter of principle. Coalitions are supposed to be more effective, more representative, and more democratic, especially in a country where even the most popular political party can only muster 35% of the vote. Democracy doesn't mean the largest minority group in society getting to steamroller their views over the heads of the rest, and Lib Dems have always rather liked the idea of forcing parties to work together. But here's Clegg, perhaps two years before a general election, ruling out a coalition with either of the other two. What on earth is he doing?
Yesterday's announcement fatally undermines our most identifiable policy position. If we refuse to work constructively with parties that don't share our ideology, yet still support proportional representation, what on earth are people supposed to conclude, if not that we want to see permanent minority government? That surely can't be tenable.
Now to be fair to Clegg (and he's had a rough time lately), I can think of at least one excellent reason for this announcement: the coalition question always screws us over. In the buildup to an election, all it takes us for somebody to ask us who we'd rather go into coalition with, and our campaign goes off the rails. We've never yet found a satisfactory answer.
If we declare a preference for one of the other parties - say, Labour - we throw away our ability to set an independent liberal agenda. Suddenly, there's no point in voting Lib Dem: if people know we're only going to prop up Labour anyway, they might as well vote for Labour in the first place, if they support them, or the Tories if they don't.
But suppose we decide to keep our independence, and refuse to declare a preference for Labour or the Tories. Suddenly, we become the sleazy party of backroom deals, who've already sewn up the result of the next election behind closed doors, without ever consulting the people.
And suppose we say, quite sensibly, that we'll wait until the next general election, chat to the other parties, and try to thrash out the most liberal policy programme we can under the circumstances, without any predetermined favourite. Well, people switch off and don't listen. That sort of message takes a bit of explaining, and is almost impossible to get into a catchy soundbite.
It seems whichever way we turn, we can't win. And so Nick Clegg is going for option four: to refuse to go into government with either Labour or the Tories, instead promising us the nebulous waffle of "a new type of government ... based on pluralism instead of one party rule" - frankly, I struggle to see how that ambition could ever be put into practice without a coalition-based system, even if it's expressed in English so hazy as to require fog-lights.
Don't get me wrong: I sympathise with Clegg a great deal. PR is one of those awkward areas where we have a very coherent and justified position, but one which is too nuanced to be explained simply, and which can be undermined with depressing ease by one well-aimed jibe from our opponents. But Clegg needs to watch out. There's no point countering those jibes if the only way to do it is to sacrifice all the coherence that made our position worthwhile in the first place.