The main reason the Lib Dems fared so badly can be summed up in two words – tuition fees. The change of their policy on fees was so fundamental because it opened up the whole issue of trust. The only campaign pledge most of us can remember from their campaign of 2010 was the one to abolish tuition fees. They said it so often and so successfully. I can remember the uncomfortable meeting with students they encouraged in Wokingham, when I said I thought any future government was likely to keep fees and put them up. We were all awaiting the Brown review on how to proceed. The Lib Dems pounced and made their very popular offer to the student audience.
When they entered government the Conservatives were generous to them in many ways, treating them as equal partners in the all important Quad at the top of the government and giving them important Ministerial positions throughout Whitehall. Their man was the Secretary of State responsible for tuition fees. Conservatives were willing for the senior Conservative HE Minister in his department to make the decision on fees, and for the Lib Dems to speak against and abstain. Instead Dr Cable handled it himself and proposed himself a 3 line whip for higher fees. I could not understand why he did this, as it was bound to be deeply damaging to the reputation of all Lib Dems.
The Lib Dems compounded their problem of trust by the way they repeatedly sought sole credit for the tax cuts and higher spending on the pupil premium in schools, whilst seeking to lay the blame for any less popular joint policy onto the Conservatives. The truth is all the policies that went through were joint, with the exceptions of the changed boundaries – a Conservative wish – in exchange for an AV referendum – a Lib dem wish. We got the latter but not the former. It all created a portrait of unreliable allies, people who only wanted coalition when it suited them.
The Lib Dem catchy slogan that they would provide heart to a Conservative government and head to a Labour government was a nasty slogan. 68% of the voters supported Conservative or Labour, yet the Lib Dems could arrogantly assert their moral and intellectual superiority to those parties. The electorate decided otherwise, not liking this approach. Their claim to be a moderate policy of the centre was belied by their strongly pro EU and green stance.
They also suffered from the rise of the Greens. If you want a pro EU pro green party that is clearly left of centre the Greens are the purer version. The Lib Dems could not work out whether to shift more towards the Green position, or to attack them.
In permanent opposition as an ideas and protest party it is possible to face left and right at the same time. In government you make choices which define you, and you are meant as Ministers to defend the common line. The new leader of the Lib Dems will have a difficult task to define what a new Lib Dem party stands for, and a further challenge to get people to believe it. I am not sure there is room for two pro EU green parties, as they enjoy a small voter base together, let alone divided.