Comment: Bolder Lib Dems could still escape disaster

Nick Clegg's party are good at steadfast resilience. You don't become a Lib Dem unless you are a glutton for punishment, and so – in spite of the bleak picture of the last year – they remain determined to do something, anything, to get out of trouble.

Nearly halfway through the five-year coalition, things look black. Liberal Democrat poll numbers have remained anaemic, barely creeping into double figures. Their leader's approval ratings are now comparable to Gordon Brown's at his nadir. On the key metric of 'fit to govern', where they might have expected to have seen some sort of improvement, there has been very little progress. They are viewed as an irrelevance in policy terms – mere aiders and abetters to the Conservatives, propping up David Cameron to continue cutting as usual.

The Liberal Democrats need a grand change of narrative to meet the magnitude of these challenges. Bold moves are needed – and there are signs that the party's threatened leader is prepared to make them. Clegg's apology over breaking his tuition fees pledge will benefit his party, marginally at least, come 2015 when it is time for the next round of manifesto pledges. It may even win over soft Lib Dem voters pushed away by all the broken promises.

More important is a new attitude towards the Tories. Lib Dem MPs' confidence in the success of the coalition project has become distinctly wobbly in recent months. They cling to the coalition agreement with increasing desperation – and doing so now feels more an act of faith than a reliance on a contractual arrangement. They will be relieved and encouraged by Clegg's hardening line against Tory backbenchers, and their "turbo-charged right-wing agenda".

Lib Dem MPs view Cameron's unreconstructed MPs with all the fear and loathing they did when they shared the opposition benches. There is no love lost; a state of more or less open warfare exists between these two extremes of the coalition, whether they brush up against each other on the doorstep or in the Commons' voting lobbies. Now the task for Lib Dem backbenchers is not just to keep the right-wing zealots in check but twist the policies of the reshuffled Cabinet as close towards the centre as possible.

Persuading the public they are succeeding in this is not going to be easy, for there is only a fine line between "squabbling" and assertiveness. We know voters take a dim view of petty-minded bickering between the coalition parties; it sends a negative message that slowly drip-feeds its way through headline after headline into the public conscience. Tit-for-tat acrimony, like the Lib Dem withdrawal of support for boundary changes after the collapse of their cherished Lords reform proposals, displays exactly the kind of bitter resentment which is driving voters away from the 'new politics' of coalition.

A coalition junior party less afraid to challenge the Conservatives, to assert itself on the issues that matter and demonstrate to voters that it is making a difference, is more desirable. Clegg has chosen to make a stand against the Tory steamroller on taxation, a move which will be greeted with more enthusiasm in some Lib Dem seats than others. Given that the Tories will be targeting more Lib Dem seats than Labour will in 2015 – as a proportion of those they need to gain an overall majority – this may be a sensible approach.

Reaching the voters and changing their minds is much harder than influencing the dynamic in the Westminster village. Still, you can't run before you can walk. This conference might just give the Lib Dems the start they need to revive their fortunes ahead of 2015.

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