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Published on September 26th, 2011 | by David Christie
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Nick Clegg delivers his keynote speech at the Lib Dem conference. Image from the Liberal Democrats' photostream"]Nick Clegg delivers his keynote speech at the Lib Dem conference.  Image from the Liberal Democrats' photostream[/caption] In arguing that we should ‘never, ever trust Labour with our economy again’, Nick Clegg gave the impression that he would never contemplate entering into a coalition with Labour.  By implication, this suggests that he only ever wants his party to be in a coalition with the Tories.  But in contrast to this, left-winger Tim Farron talked about the inevitability of divorce from the Tories.  Further bouts of Tory-bashing at the conference included Simon Hughes describing the Tories as ‘ruthless’ and ‘extreme’, Chris Huhne attacking the Tories’ ‘tea party tendency’ and Vince Cable describing Tory right-wingers as the ‘ideological descendants of those who sent children up chimneys’. With this ideological divide, is it conceivable that the Liberal Democrats could eventually split into two different parties?  This might sound far-fetched, but a similar thing happened in 1931: in a time of economic crisis, both the Liberals and Labour split over whether to join the Conservative-led National Government.  There are different ideological groupings within the Lib Dems today: the Orange Bookers on the right (such as Clegg, Ed Davey and David Laws) want to steer the party towards its roots in free-market classical liberalism, while the Social Liberal Forum on the left (including Farron and Evan Harris) believe in Keynesian-style social liberalism.  Cable and Huhne made contributions to the Orange Book, but most of their recent rhetoric leans towards the left, which suggests that their current position perhaps lies somewhere between the two factions. If a decisive policy difference with the Tories was to emerge, could we see Clegg and his right-wing supporters forming a ‘National Liberal Party’ and remaining in coalition with the Conservatives, leaving the left (perhaps led by Farron) to withdraw into opposition and form a new centre-left party?  This scenario might seem outlandish at the moment, but the ideological division which currently exists within the party is one of the pre-conditions for such a split.  At their conference the Lib Dems announced some left-wing policies (some of which are slightly to the left of those pursued by Labour when they were in power), but these were probably just an attempt to appease left-wingers amongst the party’s rank and file, and will have little effect on the main thrust of coalition policy.  Sooner or later some of them will realise this, and they may start to kick up a fuss - will there then be a greater chance of a split?

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The Lib Dem conference hinted at the party’s internal divisions

Nick Clegg delivers his keynote speech at the Lib Dem conference.  Image from the Liberal Democrats' photostream

Nick Clegg delivers his keynote speech at the Lib Dem conference. Image from the Liberal Democrats' photostream

In arguing that we should ‘never, ever trust Labour with our economy again’, Nick Clegg gave the impression that he would never contemplate entering into a coalition with Labour.  By implication, this suggests that he only ever wants his party to be in a coalition with the Tories.  But in contrast to this, left-winger Tim Farron talked about the inevitability of divorce from the Tories.  Further bouts of Tory-bashing at the conference included Simon Hughes describing the Tories as ‘ruthless’ and ‘extreme’, Chris Huhne attacking the Tories’ ‘tea party tendency’ and Vince Cable describing Tory right-wingers as the ‘ideological descendants of those who sent children up chimneys’.

With this ideological divide, is it conceivable that the Liberal Democrats could eventually split into two different parties?  This might sound far-fetched, but a similar thing happened in 1931: in a time of economic crisis, both the Liberals and Labour split over whether to join the Conservative-led National Government.  There are different ideological groupings within the Lib Dems today: the Orange Bookers on the right (such as Clegg, Ed Davey and David Laws) want to steer the party towards its roots in free-market classical liberalism, while the Social Liberal Forum on the left (including Farron and Evan Harris) believe in Keynesian-style social liberalism.  Cable and Huhne made contributions to the Orange Book, but most of their recent rhetoric leans towards the left, which suggests that their current position perhaps lies somewhere between the two factions.

If a decisive policy difference with the Tories was to emerge, could we see Clegg and his right-wing supporters forming a ‘National Liberal Party’ and remaining in coalition with the Conservatives, leaving the left (perhaps led by Farron) to withdraw into opposition and form a new centre-left party?  This scenario might seem outlandish at the moment, but the ideological division which currently exists within the party is one of the pre-conditions for such a split.  At their conference the Lib Dems announced some left-wing policies (some of which are slightly to the left of those pursued by Labour when they were in power), but these were probably just an attempt to appease left-wingers amongst the party’s rank and file, and will have little effect on the main thrust of coalition policy.  Sooner or later some of them will realise this, and they may start to kick up a fuss – will there then be a greater chance of a split?

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