With just a week until the election, the Liberal Democrats remain stuck at about 9% in the polls and are on course to lose more than half their seats.
Left-leaning voters who supported the party in 2010 have deserted it as a consequence of its decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives. And that, at least in part, is why Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the treasury, has decided to leak old coalition proposals for cutting benefits a week before the election.
The plans, which date from 2012, were part of a discussion paper on welfare reform circulated among senior cabinet ministers. The document set out £8 billion of savings and included proposals to limit child benefit and child tax credits to a family’s first two children, as well as means-testing child benefit.
Alexander says he resisted the proposals, claiming that he has battled for five years to stop the Tories “veering off to the right” by making “ideological cuts”. He sent the details to the Guardian to expose what has been going on behind closed Treasury doors.
While his actions may appear to be poor form, they are also good politics. The party has calculated that it could benefit from having a public row with the Conservatives on the cusp of the election.
Alexander has gambled, for sure. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have co-habited in an increasingly discordant coalition for five years, but this full-frontal attack from Alexander calls into question the functionality of the two parties’ working relationship.
If the Lib Dems succeed in their aim of being the pivotal party and end up in coalition with the Conservatives for the second time, trust between the two parties will probably be damaged as a result of this leak. But by far the stronger force determining the composition of the next government will be parliamentary arithmetic.
And if the Lib Dems are the only party that could offer the Tories the chance to control a majority of seats, then the leak will be quickly forgotten – just as the Conservatives’ sharp tactics during the AV referendum and House of Lords reform will be, and indeed have been.
In the meantime Alexander is looking to win back lost votes for his party to help them get to the bargaining table.
The immediate priority for the Liberal Democrats is to maximise the number of seats they will hold. Going into the election, they had 57 seats but most experts are predicting that to fall to between 25 and 30.
In two-thirds of the seats the Lib Dems won in 2010, the Conservatives finished in second place and will be the major challengers this time round. Many of those Lib Dem-Tory marginals were won thanks to tactical voting by Labour supporters, who decided their party couldn’t win.
With the Liberal Democrats governing alongside the Conservatives, there is a genuine prospect that Labour supporters will no longer vote tactically in Lib Dem-Tory marginals, as the two parties are part of the same centre-right coalition. That could cause the loss of numerous Lib Dem seats.
By attacking the Conservatives on welfare, the Liberal Democrats are signalling to Labour voters that the coalition partners are not the same, and that things would have been worse had the Liberal Democrats not restrained the Tories. The same goes for the coming election: a tactical vote is still worthwhile, because, if there is to be a Conservative-led government, it would be better if it were held back by the Lib Dems.
This is the classic appeal of centrist liberal parties – they check the power of the major centre-left or centre-right party. The Liberal Democrats have also left open the possibility of a deal with Labour, with the implication that they would see eye-to-eye on welfare reform – another reason for Labour supporters to vote tactically for the third party.
The more seats the Lib Dems hold on May 7, the greater the chance they’ll have to play a role in forming a government in the event of a hung parliament. It will increase their relevance in the post-election negotiations, making it more likely that they, rather than another smaller party, will offer a major party the chance to form a majority coalition.
A recent YouGov poll indicated that more voters (37%) would prefer the Liberal Democrats to UKIP (26%) or the SNP (17%) to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. Now comes Alexander to show voters that he was the voice of decency and generosity, while his Tory colleagues sought to slash and burn.
His leak may mean that there is no repeat of the Downing Street garden love-in of five years ago, but after a fractious experience in government since, there was little chance of that anyway.