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LibDems between a rock and an even harder place

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, wants a second chance, but is there any likelihood of the electorate granting it?

From day one, the party has suffered from its association with the Conservatives, with many LibDems feeling disgust at the sight of their party supporting austerity. The LibDems have also struggled to recover from their disastrous U-turn on university tuition fees in England and they suffered at the European elections. Not only that, the opinion polls appear to show they will do just as badly in next year's General Election.

Mr Clegg is aware of the extent of the crisis - so much so that he considered resigning after the European results - but now a concerted attempt at recovery and repackaging is under way. On his regular radio appearances and in his monthly press conferences, Mr Clegg has been drip-feeding policies he believes will be popular; he is also continuing to promote the idea that the LibDems are the soft centre between the harsh Tories and economically unreliable Labour.

However, this is a line that Mr Clegg and his party have been pushing since the first days of the Coalition, with absolutely no sign the country is buying it. In going into government, said Mr Clegg, the LibDems made a difficult but correct decision, and yet recent polls suggest the party, four years after striking their deal with the Tories, are still struggling at around 9 per cent.

The results in the European and English local elections also speak for themselves. What all these polls and results would appear to suggest is the LibDems are heading for wipe-out next year, although it is not quite as simple as that. It is true the party has lost support at recent elections, but a General Election is a different matter and this time it will be complicated by the Ukip factor. There will be some voters who supported Ukip in May who will do so again next year but there are others who will consider which party is likely to have an influence after the General Election and return to one of the three main parties, a trend that could benefit the LibDems.

But even if it is beneficial, the party is still likely to suffer a big drop in support and a loss of MPs although, in the new political landscape, a drop in support will not necessarily mean a drop in influence. Even if the LibDems plummet to 20 or 30 seats - or even lower - Mr Clegg might still be kingmaker, with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband desperate to be crowned.

It is a role Mr Clegg might be able to exploit on the issues he cares about and, if there is a No vote in September, those issues could include federalism, which has long been one of the LibDems' core principles.

None of this is certain and it may be that the LibDems are punished comprehensively at the polls for their role in the Coalition. Part of their survival strategy will be to focus on the seats they think they can keep (and that strategy has some chance of success) but the party is in a hole and no matter how much it tries to clamber out, it is unlikely to escape by next summer.

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