I wondered when it would happen.
The huge drop in opinion poll support during the first months of the coalition didn’t do it.
The decision to break the pledge on tuition fees in the autumn of 2010 didn’t do it.
The terrible results in the local elections of 2011 and 2012 didn’t do it.
The Tories’ awful NHS reforms – which were not in the coalition agreement – didn’t do it.
The failure of the coalition’s austerity policies – which the Liberal Democrat 2010 manifesto correctly predicted would fail – didn’t do it.
But somehow, Monday night’s vote in the House of Commons on secret courts – in which all but seven Liberal Democrat MPs backed the government – has done it. The party has finally fallen out of love with the coalition. And it has probably fallen out of love with Nick Clegg as well.
Why should secret courts be a watershed when other issues were not? There are two likely reasons. First, secret courts is an issue that unites grassroots Liberal Democrat members from left to right – it is not a controversial government policy for which one faction has a sneaking regard. Second, it is a fundamental issue of civil liberties – and liberty is the basic raison d’être of Liberals.
It is not yet clear how the party’s disillusionment will play out. There will probably be an emergency motion at next weekend’s spring conference in Brighton. Otherwise, members are still gathering their thoughts, as Caron Lindsay’s post on Liberal Democrat Voice indicates.
Meanwhile, as Richard Morris suggests, the parliamentary party seems almost to have wilfully mismanaged the situation and done everything it can to alienate the membership.
Nick Clegg has mishandled the secret courts debate throughout, pretty much as he did last spring with the proposed bill on interception of communications. He has not alienated party members for the usual reason leaders do it (a stage-managed attempt to pick a fight with the grassroots to show who’s boss). He has done it because he has a tin ear for the party’s culture, the result of being fast-tracked into the leadership without serving a sufficient apprenticeship.
For now, we can only guess Clegg’s precise motives. As Jonathan Calder points out, the leader (who has recently grown fond of sending regular e-mails to the membership) has been curiously silent since Monday’s vote.