For Nick Clegg the Real Prize Will Be in 2020, Not 2015

The next election is just under 500 days away. It is hard to say what the big policy dividing lines will be, but one thing is for certain: 2015 will be nothing like 2010. Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems transformed the last contest, riding a wave of youthful optimism and holding out the tantalizing prospect of breaking out of British third-party politics. And while the wave broke, leaving Clegg with fewer MPs than before, the consolation prize was a seat in the first coalition for three generations.

Cleggmania feels like ancient history now. The weeks running up to 7 May 2015 are likely to be low on inspiration. The economy will still be weak. None of the three leaders will feel fresh. David Cameron and Ed Miliband are likely to be frustrated at their inability to break out of their geographical heartlands.

What about the Lib Dems? On the face of it, they have the steepest climb. The damage done to Clegg’s reputation over tuition fees in the earliest months of the government has not yet been undone. The party’s national poll ratings bump along the bottom of the scale.

So what is to be done? I think we can safely rule out ditching the leader or jumping out of government. Clegg is secure, against the expectations of most Westminster pundits a year ago. And the government is stable. There may be precious little love lost now between the two parties, but they are bound together by political necessity: neither is strong enough for separation. Clegg will not seek political drama. He will seek points for steadiness and consistency, rather than for rhetoric and radicalism.

Clegg knows that in 2015 the party will not find many voters who think it has done everything right. But he hopes to find enough who value the way the Lib Dems have soldiered on and made a qualitative difference in government. More Braveheart than Brave New World.

At the same time the party is banking on the political fertility of the center ground. Clegg has worked hard to yank his party in a liberal direction: nobody can now mistake the Lib Dems for an adjunct of the left. That is why it was politically vital to agree to longer term fiscal plans. But also why Clegg fights for lower taxes at the bottom, fairer taxes on the wealthy, and greater resources for schools. Ironically, an old phrase of Gordon Brown’s may provide the best description: “Prudence for a purpose.”

Next year the Lib Dems will also attempt to turn the issue of Europe to political advantage. As seen by his comments on immigration this month, Clegg refuses to temper his pro-Europeanism, even when strongly advised otherwise. (I speak from experience.)

So expect an unapologetically pro-European campaign in the 2014 European elections. The politics of this are hard to read – Europe is not popular with more than one in four of the electorate. But that one in four could be important to Lib Dem electoral prospects. Pro-Europeanism gives the benefit of political distinctiveness: nobody can mistake Clegg for Cameron on this one.

Resilient, centrist and independent, that will be the pitch. Will it be enough? It just might. But for reasons of political geography as much as ideology. Unlike the other two parties, the Lib Dems do not need a national victory. They will pursue a “fortress strategy”, pouring their energy and troops into holding enough seats to deny Cameron and Miliband a victory. In 2010, there was a last-minute Lib Dem surge, dissipated across unwinnable seats. In 2015, the mantra will be “dig in where we can win”.

This might work. For one thing the party continues to perform more strongly at a local than a national level, especially where it has a historic affinity or an existing MP. Holding Eastleigh was vitally important: in effect, two fingers from the party to the pollsters.

In a reversal of the historic trend, in 2015 the Lib Dems may do much better in terms of seats than their national poll ratings would imply. Clegg and his team are also targeting “soft Tory” wards, which were previously difficult to reach. In 2015, they will be able to go after votes on the center-right, as well as the center-left. This could be a decisive factor, since the party’s most vulnerable parliamentary seats are Conservative-facing.

The real prize will come not in 2015 but 2020. A decade of power at the national level would change the Lib Dems for good, and kill the presumption of one-party government.

In 2010, the party tried to ignite the idealism of voters and change the political map. Next time round, they’ll be hoping for grudging respect and survival in key seats. But this might be enough.