This is one of my series of lunchtime blogposts.
Only a few months ago I was convinced that Nick Clegg would have to be replaced as leader if we were to have any chance of avoiding being slaughtered at the next general election. I also thought such an act would be justly deserved given the way in which he comprehensively mucked up over tuition fees and how damaging his behaviour in government had been to the party - not speaking up for Lib Dem principles, ignoring the membership on issues like the NHS and being seen as a frontman for everything bad that the coalition was doing.
Well, I still don't like Nick Clegg. I still don't think he gets it that the outrage over tuition fees comes not from not delivering on our manifesto policy to abolish fees (which was impossible to deliver in coalition) but from so many of our MPs, himself included, breaking a cast iron, written and signed promise to the electorate to vote against higher fees.
He hasn't yet managed to grasp that his excuses about being in coalition and being forced to compromise on policy simply won't wash with people who, like myself, are angry for an entirely different reason: the matter of integrity and principle.
But, that said, I'm starting to think that much of my assessment of our position as a party and his as leader was, in fact, wrong.
You see, despite going from being ignored by most of the media to being actively attacked on a regular basis by most of the media, our polling numbers have remained relatively constant. If you take the ICM polling figures (which are the gold standard in terms of accuracy when it comes to actual results in elections) then you'll see we're currently at 14%. Now, that's a massive drop from our general election result of 23% but it's not annihiliation.
A lot of us, myself included, naively assumed that being in government would mean we got equal coverage by the media. We don't though - just as an example, Question Time always has a Labourite and a Conservative on the panel but only has a Lib Dem on the panel once in a while - even when the issues being debated are ones which the Lib Dems have something relative to say: such as when QT debated the Iraq War and voting reform.
So, in the absence of being given a fair chance to get our message across, we can probably assume that at least some of the drop in our support is the standard problem we see between elections. For decades our numbers have dropped between elections and just bumped along and then suddenly risen significantly when the election rolled around and the media were forced to give us equal coverage. That means that our polling position probably isn't as weak as it looks.
Now, whilst I used to think we should get rid of him, I think Clegg's position as leader is pretty strong. The fact is that it's very difficult to dislodge a leader and, even if we did it peacefully, we'd then have a new leader going into a general election with no time for the public to get to know him - hardly the best situation to be in. On the other hand, Clegg, no matter what you think of him, is extremely charismatic and likeable in person. And, given that televised leaders debates at the next election are inevitable then it's not impossible that we could see some form of Cleggmania again.Well, Cleggmania is a bit much - in all probability he'll just be able to win back some lost support as long as he puts up a good performance.
And, let's think about those debates. Cameron will still be leader but he'll have a problem in that his credentials of being a modern, compassionate, progressive conservative will be severely damaged due to tories constantly coming up with some of the most unpopular proposals of the coalition government - such as scrapping employment rights for workers or giving tax cuts to the rich. So at best I think Cameron will only be able to put up an adequate performance in the eyes of the public. And Clegg will always claim to have been acting as brakes on the tories in government. Some people won't buy that but some of them will - and that'll be a little bit more support that comes back to us.
Ed Miliband, on the other hand, will have the biggest problem. He isn't exactly renowned for his debating skills and suffers from having a popularity rating as bad as Clegg's. People just don't seem to warm to him - my father is a case in point. My father is a man who I might normally think would be at least open to listening to what the Labour leader had to say but, in practice, just changes channel when he sees Ed Miliband - because he "can't stand his voice".
So, as I said, in those circumstances it's not at all unlikely that Clegg might well be able to put up a performance that wins us back some of the lost support.
Meanwhile, being in government has led to a much more united party and one which is, despite failures in messaging by the leadership, becoming better at getting its point across and which will be boosted in the general election thanks to the same state-of-the-art election software that played a huge part in getting Obama elected.
And the final thing to bear in mind is the vagaries of our voting system. At the last general election we got a million more votes but lost seats. So, in reality, we have something of a buffer in losing support before we start losing large numbers of seats.
It's always considered foolish to make a prediction about general election results this far out, but, with that proviso, I think it's not just plausible but likely that we will hang on to most of our seats and that we should keep Clegg as leader.