Peter Oborne has written that the coalition won't see out 2013 and agrees with Mark Oaten's view that
coalitions are always disastrous for the smaller party. It gets swallowed up, blamed for the failures and only rarely credited with the successes, and then not nearly enough.
This is by no means the first time I've heard such a view expressed. Indeed shortly after the last general election, I attended a seminar where the constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor predicted a grim future for the Lib Dems as a result of their participation in coalition. It seems to me that the view that junior coalition partners are necessarily doomed has become almost a received wisdom, an assertion one hears people make in political conversation with an air of authority.
My purpose is not to come over all Panglossian about how the Liberal Democrats will perform at the next election, but rather to challenge how far history offers us a guide to the electoral prospects of a junior coalition partner. It seems to me that since the formalisation of party organisations in the nineteenth century, there has been no equivalent of what we have now: a peacetime coalition of two parties who continue to compete against one another in elections.
The main examples of peacetime coalitions in Britain have involved not an independent junior partner but a schism from an established party (usually the Liberals) which then entered into an electoral pact with the Conservatives. In the case of the Liberal Unionists (junior coalition partners from 1895-1905) and the Liberal Nationals (from 1931 onwards) this new alliance proved permanent. In the case of the Lloyd George coalition, it fell apart and both sides returned to their previous affiliations.
In each of these cases there remained an independent Liberal party outside the coalition (other than the brief participation of the Samuelite Liberals in the National Government between 1931 and 1932). Both the Liberal Unionists and the National Liberals were indeed swallowed up, but each clearly had an impact on their Conservative partners. Each helped broaden the Conservative party's appeal and they did receive credit for this from their new allies. And while the Lloyd George coalition ended in tears, the Conservatives clearly understood Lloyd George's usefulness to them while it lasted (and they ditched him when he became a liability). The key thing, though, is that in none of these cases was the coalition partner truly independent of its larger ally - indeed it was dependent on an electoral alliance for its very existence in parliament.
History does perhaps suggest that holding the balance of power, while at one level the Liberals' dream, has meant bad news for the party at the subsequent election. It's almost inevitable that this will be the case. If Liberals put Labour in then their centre-right supporters will be angry and if they back the Tories then this will antagonise its centre-left voters. So when the Liberals installed a Labour government after the 1923 general election delivered a hung parliament, it lost support to the Conservatives at the 1924 election. After1929 when the Liberals again backed a Labour government, the party split, and had the subsequent election in 1931 been fought on conventional party lines, the Liberals would doubtless have done very badly.
Yet in neither case was the party in coalition. And in the 1920s the Liberals party was atrophying at constituency level so arguably holding the balance of power merely hastened rather than caused its decline. A better comparison with today's situation would be the Lib-Lab pact in the 1970s where the Liberals sustained in power an unpopular and discredited Labour government. But by this stage the party had reversed its long-term decline, particularly at local level, and had developed a community politics strategy that (sometimes) went hand in hand with winning parliamentary seats by promoting Liberal MPs as local heroes. As a result, although the Liberals lost ground in 1979, its parliamentary representation fell only marginally, from 13 to 11, compared with the previous election. If the Lib Dems lost 15% of their MPs at the next election it will still leave the party in a much stronger position then it was before 1997.
Another argument that junior coalition partners always fare badly comes from Ireland. The fate of the Progressive Democrats, who lost most of their seats in the 2007 general election and then went out of existence following a coalition with Fianna Fail, is often cited. Yet the history of the PDs is rather more complex. The party actually twice increased its Dail representation after periods in coalition: at the 1992 and 2002 elections. For a while it developed a reputation for keeping Fianna Fail honest and in many ways had an impact on policy beyond its slim electoral support base. By contrast, its representation fell dramatically each time it was in opposition. The final disaster was probably more to do with bad tactics - appearing too close to Fianna Fail, picking the wrong fights when it sought to differentiate itself, and obvious friction among its leaders - than with the fact of being in coalition.
Similarly the electoral performance of the Irish Labour party in government does not justify a wholly pessimistic reading of the fate of junior coalition partners. In 1977 and 1987 it lost proportionately fewer seats than its larger coalition partner, Fine Gael. It did suffer a disastrous result in 1997, but that was after it had first sustained in power an unpopular Fianna Fail party, then switched horses midway through the parliament and gone into coalition with Fine Gael and others. It was punished for inconsistency and opportunism rather than the fact of going into coalition.
So while I don't dispute the self-evident truth that being a junior coalition partner is far from a bed of roses and the next general election a tough challenge for the Liberal Democrats, there is really no historical evidence from either Britain or Ireland to justify a conclusion that 'coalitions are always disastrous for the smaller party'.