I notice an article entitled ‘Can Lib Dems recover after Oaten?’ by Nick Assinder on the BBC News website. It’s a fatuous question and the article doesn’t really give much of an answer.
I say ‘fatuous’ because of themselves sex scandals rarely do much damage to parties, the electorate being canny enough to realise that no party has a monopoly on sexual purity or peccadillos. Sometimes a party can be damaged if there is a whole series of scandals that in combination make it look sleazy or dishonest. This happened to the Tories in 1963–64 and 1995–97. But even the Thorpe scandal didn’t really damage the party electorally (although it did cost us Thorpe’s own seat). A Guardian poll today puts us at 19 per cent, which is remarkably good really. My guess is that in a few weeks only a small proportion of ordinary voters will even be able to remember who was involved in the scandal.
The crucial question for this parliament is whether Cameron begins to look like a prime minister or whether he will be exposed as a lightweight. History suggests that the Liberal Democrats' worst years are when the Conservatives defeat a Labour government – see 1924, 1951, 1970 and 1979 general elections. Often the Conservatives have taken votes disproportionately from the Liberals, so that there was even a net swing from Liberals to Labour.
So it will depend on whether there really is a public appetite to replace Labour with the Conservatives, which we will not really be able to tell until nearer the time. And even in 1979, the party only made a net loss of two seats – down from 13 to 11 – compared to the previous election as MPs used their local reputation to hang on to their seats. Losses of a similar proportion now would still leave the Lib Dems with more than 50 MPs.
Whichever way, the Lib Dem performance in 2009 will not be affected much, or indeed at all by the problems of the last few weeks.