LET'S see if I've got this straight.
First it was in the national interest to veto a new European treaty. Then the veto was a catastrophic betrayal of the national interest. Now it is overwhelmingly in the national interest for opponents and proponents of the veto to go on clinging together in coalition like shipwrecked sailors on an upturned boat. So says the Government.
Let's take one player in this game of liar's poker at his word. Let's say Nick Clegg truly believes, despite the deep personal pain that Mr Cameron's veto has caused him, that he must remain in partnership with the Conservatives for the sake of the country, no matter what. How does the logic work?
There is, first, the question of damaged goods. The Liberal Democrat leader tried to make out over the weekend that the collapse of the Coalition would have dire economic consequences. "Quick!" investors would cry. "Liquidate your assets! Clegg is out of government."
The chances are, I'd have thought, that those in the City and their kindred spirits abroad would welcome such an outcome. Labour isn't thriving in the polls; the Lib Dems would be eradicated. A properly Tory Government would at least be on the cards. That would be bad news for Mr Clegg, but it would not cost a bond dealer much sleep.
The Deputy Prime Minister must be thinking, then, of all the sterling work his party is doing in government, particularly when it comes to advancing Liberal Democrat "core values". So valuable has this work become, the entire nation would suffer if Mr Clegg and his colleagues were forced to desist. Let's have the audit, then.
One item ought to be obvious, but has been too often forgotten in recent months: the economy. Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Danny Alexander and the rest campaigned, remember, on a platform of staunch opposition to deep and rapid spending cuts. Dr Cable said time and again that the cure would kill the patient.
That position has been revised, so to speak. The Lib Dems say it is because things were worse than they realised. But didn't Alistair Darling, the then Chancellor, state clearly – there was a bit of publicity over this – that things were as abysmally bad as they had been in 60 years?
Then there was tuition fees for English students: a promise as plain as a promise can be, signed and sealed. It was, as Mr Clegg strived to make clear, an issue of principle. Opposition to the pillaging of England's higher education system was also "in the national interest". It was, furthermore, a chief reason why so many people decided that they agreed with Nick.
Next came the NHS in England and Wales. For Mr Clegg, this was a line – several lines, it transpired – in the sand. It was a deal-breaker. His party would rebel en masse. Creeping privatisation of the English health service would never be allowed: Liberal Democrats had spoken. The system is being dismembered even now.
But bite your tongue, good Lib Dems must have told themselves. Bite your tongue, hold your nose, cross your fingers, and remain inside the tent for bladder relief purposes: electoral reform is the prize.
It used to be true. It was once their reason to exist. "Fair voting" was still another issue of principle, and certainly in the national interest. As things turned out, thanks mostly to Mr Cameron, this recompense for coalition would have disgraced a lucky bag. Mr Clegg got nothing.
Finally, Europe. Hindsight would say that this was an accident waiting to happen. Tory and Lib Dem views have long diverged, to put it mildly. A lot rested on Mr Cameron's ability to keep a lid on his party's obsessions. But his decision to use the veto – without consulting Mr Clegg on the night in question, it appears – simply to pander to the obsessives should have raised the stakes.
This was not, or should not have been, simply an argument over the national interest. It should have been an argument over Liberal Democrat influence, if any, when Britain's interests were at stake. It should have been an argument over their very reasons for being in government.
Now Mr Clegg is in a ludicrous position. The leader of the most explicitly Europhile Westminster party has been complicit in the most reckless of eurosceptic gestures. The party that supposedly wants Britain at the heart of Europe, as a matter of principle, has allowed Britain to be pushed to the margins.
Subsequent LibDem "protests" have been laboured or preposterous. If Mr Clegg thought he could satisfy anyone by going into hiding while Mr Cameron faced the Commons he truly does believe voters are dummies. His colleagues have been equally fatuous. They can huff and puff: everyone knows they will not quit the Coalition. No price is now too high.
Their choice is simple: shut up and play along with the Tory script or face annihilation at the polls. That being so, however, it is no longer enough to say that the Lib Dems have exhausted every last reason they ever had for being in government. That was true, in every important respect, before the veto row. Mr Clegg's only real remaining role in political life is to make Mr Cameron's brand of Conservatism possible.
How is that defined as the national interest from any conceivable Liberal Democrat perspective? The claim that Mr Clegg and his colleagues would exploit their positions in Government to restrain the Tories has been exposed, once and for all, as nonsense. One by one, the "worst excesses", the excesses the Liberal Democrats were supposed to prevent, are happening.
There is no way back for Mr Clegg. He can stagger on to the next General Election, but his fate, and his party's fate, is sealed. He has no more crumbs of comfort to offer even to the most blindly loyal of his remaining supporters.
Ed Miliband and Labour would be well advised, then, to have nothing to do with this toxic brand. Flirting with the Liberal Democrats will not be well received by the mass of voters who have seen enough and heard enough.
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