Nick Clegg's conceit in pretending that the Liberal Democrats are not thinking about what might happen if - as seems increasingly likely - there is a hung parliament after the general election will fool nobody. But Andrew Adonis was right yesterday (on this, as on the BA strike) in pointing out just how damaging an alliance with the Conservatives would be to the Liberal Democrats.
Their trouble is that, even if their voters are split in their second choice between the Tories and Labour, most of their own members are instinctively opposed to the Tories, and would find themselves to the left of Labour on a range of issues. Education is a good example. David Laws, their intelligent schools spokesman, has to tie himself in knots in a bid to embrace a position that he clearly supports - the development of academies and Tory-style free schools - whilst satisfying the traditionalists in the party by promising a strong role for local authorities and claiming to back 'academies for all' (a position which would probably mean no improvement in the weaker schools that academies largely embrace). Equally tortuous is their continued promise to get rid of university tuition fees, a position that has no intellectual coherence at a time when their finance spokesman Vince Cable is demanding public spending restraint.
These disingenuous compromises don't come in for a great deal of scrutiny when the party is unlikely to be in government, and Clegg has cleverly put forward his bottom lines on issues like education - where he promises to scrap the child trust fund to pay for a pupil premium - and voting reform, knowing that these are issues on which he can carry his party. But what if Clegg takes his party into a coalition, or more probably, props up a minority Conservative government? Unless Clegg calls a conference to ratify his decision, something he seems reluctant to do, he will destroy all the gains that his party has made since 1997. Minority parties can gain all the blame from the voters in such circumstances with little credit for the 'stability' or 'responsibility' that may also have resulted, or indeed for the policies they have successfully had introduced. So Clegg may be the kingmaker after the election, but if he gets it wrong, he may also be the author of his own party's downfall.