Liberal Democrats

Few parties have gone through such a dramatic journey in recent years as the Lib Dems.

The party emerged from the 2005 poll with their highest share of the vote since the SDP-Liberal Alliance, receiving 62 seats primarily because of their principled opposition to the Iraq war. The number of seats did not reflect the huge support the party received, with almost a quarter of the total national vote translating into just a tenth of the representatives in the Commons, due to the first-past-the-post system. A brave move at the time, the decision to stand against the conflict was probably the most important choice the party has made in its history.

Not long afterwards, on January 5th 2006, Charles Kennedy revealed the worst kept secret in Westminster by admitting he was a recovering alcoholic. Although initially planning to stand in the ensuing leadership contest, he eventually found himself without sufficient support and stepped down altogether. He remains well-loved among the rank-and-file however, as his reception during party conference season testifies.

Even with that as a prologue, the battle for the leadership became more damaging than anyone could have imagined. Mark Oaten, a pivotal figure on the right of the party throughout Kennedy's reign, had to end his campaign for the leadership after reports emerged of his relationship with a rent boy. He later ascribed the mistake to a mid-life crisis triggered by his hair loss. Just days later Simon Hughes, an important figure on the left of the party, also had to step down after a tabloid revealed his bisexuality.

By the time Sir Menzies Campbell took over, the party was desperate for a safe pair of hands, although his turned out to be not that safe at all. Endlessly buffeted by ridicule over his age, the new leader saw Lib Dem support drop to less than 20%. He quit on October 15th 2007 and Treasury spokesman Vince Cable took over as interim leader while Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg battled for the leadership.

It was a curious period for the party. Cable impressed everyone with his performance, and he managed to permanently damage Gordon Brown with a well delivered joke on his transformation from Stalin to Mr Bean. Cable was also way ahead of the government on several crucial issues, including the nationalisation of Northern Rock. He later gained considerable plaudits as the only parliamentarian to predict the financial crisis.

At the same time, Huhne and Clegg were engaged in an increasingly bitter battle, with a 'Calamity Clegg' dossier from the Huhne campaign provoking bitter recrimination within the party. In the end, Clegg scraped through by just 500 votes, and promised to treble the number of Lib Dem MPs in the Commons. Despite the unpleasant nature of the campaign, the two men appear to be working well together, with Huhne ably taking on the home affairs brief.

Many observers were initially uncomfortable with the choice. Clegg seemed to fit into the Blair/Cameron mould a bit too well: he was young, telegenic and middle class. But the differences between Clegg and Cameron, both in terms of character and policies, quickly became clear. Soon enough, the dismissive approach both main parties had adopted to the Lib Dems was tempered by a more respectful attitude, as questions about a possible hung parliament became more and more pressing. Such an eventuality, readily suggested by polling, would put the Liberal Democrats in the position of kingmaker.

Despite recent media reports that Clegg would concentrate on getting key policies though the new government rather than on a ministerial position, no-one really knows what the Lib Dems would do if Britain returns no clear winner in 2010.

Clegg forged a reputation as an intelligent and serious parliamentarian, although he never quite managed to rid himself of the 'Nick Cleggover' nickname gained following an interview with Piers Morgan for GQ in which he admitted to sleeping with just under 30 women.

The party emerged from the expenses scandal relatively unscathed, although Clegg paid back £80 for an international phone call. Nevertheless, Lib Dem MPs got a comparatively clean bill of health and Clegg took a tough approach to the issue. He was the first party leader in modern political history to demand the resignation of the Speaker, a demand which was eventually met.

But Clegg's finest hour came during the Ghurkha campaign, in which Joanna Lumley managed to spearhead a movement to allow the soldiers special immigration rights to Britain. Clegg had been working away on the issue well before it became fashionable and he enjoyed wide-spread recognition for his efforts when the victory was achieved.

Liberal Democrat support remains static, hovering around the 20% mark. In 2005 their performance was very slightly stronger – usually polling in the mid-to-lower twenties. Some political analysts berated Clegg for not making more of a period in British political history which saw the establishment lose all credibility and respect. After all, the 'outsiders' party' should have been able to crawl from the wreckage with increased support.

But the 2010 general election campaign changed all that. Clegg's appearance on an equal footing with the Conservative and Labour party leaders during three historic televised debates saw him emerge as the clear winner. The Lib Dems' ratings in the polls rocketed upwards to above 30%, pushing Labour into third place and within a few points of the Tories. It was an astonishing turnaround for the leader, with press dubbing the shift 'Cleggmania'.

On election night, reality kicked in. Although the Lib Dems increased their share of the popular vote by one point, to 23%, their number of MPs fell to 57. Clegg's relevance was not diminished, however. David Cameron's Conservatives had failed to gain an overall majority. Negotiations with the Tories resulted in Clegg agreeing to enter into a coalition, returning the Liberals to government for the first time in decades.

The Lib Dems had four secretaries of state at Cabinet level, as well as Clegg in government as deputy prime minister and other junior ministers scattered throughout Whitehall. The coalition agreement outlining the new administration's agenda was slowly being implemented, but ministers were initially focused on pushing through a drastic deficit reduction programme.

Unpopularity appears to be the initial hallmark of the Lib Dems' experience in government. Violent protests against the party's breaking of their promises on raising tuition fees were the most obvious manifestation of the public's anger at their apparent willingness to make policy sacrifices to be in power. The verdict was even harsher at the ballot box in 2011, when the Lib Dems lost over a third of their councillors and nine of the 19 councils they had held. Arguably even worse, on the same day the public rejected by two to one a referendum on electoral reform, a key issue for Lib Dems. The bitter nature of the campaign signalled a fresh start for the Lib Dems in government – more businesslike and less collegiate. They have until 2015 to recover their support.