A salient fact: Nick Clegg has never been a local councilor. Sadly, not many Liberal Democrats will be either as a consequence of the combined incomprehension of the electorate and a bungled political strategy. Clegg's career, from lobbyist, to Eurocrat, to MEP, to MP and then to Party Leader, has in many ways been as cushioned as any Tory's, and therefore it would be futile to assume that he has any genuine feeling for the destruction that is being wrought through the current approach at Westminster.
Last year, it was striking how the Liberal Democrats were wiped out in Scotland and Wales, both heartlands of Liberalism for over 150 years, and this year the process continued. The reduction in local government representation, including humiliations in Edinburgh and Cardiff, suggests that the party's credibility amongst its longest-standing supporters has reached a new low. In Scotland it is even more galling, since the elections, under STV, should provide a platform for smaller parties to build local roots and engage in the community.
In England, the performance of the party plumbed depths not seen since the previous year. 2012's local elections were more damaging, though, since they coincided with the metropolitan mayoral feeding frenzy. Brian Paddick fought a decent, doomed campaign in the bipolar world of personality politics, but still lost ground. Outside London the party continued to be wiped out in areas where it had spent decades buidling up local support, occasionally twitching where it remains in competition with the Tories and Labour's growth is only evident in an increasing share of the third-place vote.
Even for non-tribal politicians, this is disturbing. Lord Oakeshott made a valid point that if this continues the Liberal Democrats will be unable to campaign at a national level - turning them into a localised, declining force similar to the Liberals in the period between the 1930s and the 1960s. Many Liberal councillors have worked incredibly hard, not to promote the kind of ideological Liberalism that appears in textbooks, nor the high-flown windy rhetoric of manifestos, but the enabling, community-based engagement with the community. Over decades they have built up local support, local recognition and a reputation for engaging with their electorate and getting things done.
The toxicity of engagement with the Tories has wiped this out overnight. Virtually all Liberal Democrat Parliamentary successes have been based on local government foundations, and when this keystone is removed the edifice will collapse. And all Clegg appears to be able to offer is the vague hope that continued adherence to the Tory line will allow something to turn up by 2015.
This is monstrous, disrespectful naivety. The Tories are themselves circling in their inveterate role of vultures picking at a corpse - which is ironic given the cadaverous exhumations of former senior Tories such as the mutant Redwood to excoriate Cameron for requiring to stick to the Coalition agreement. As I have observed before, the bloody Tories did not win the election, yet go on behaving as though their unpopularity, ineptitude, arrogance and condescension are all manifestations of the divine right to govern that was so rudely interrupted by the intervention of Mini-Me Blair after 1997.
The Tory undead have been pronouncing that Cameron should, in effect, go "back to basics" with a series of dog-whistle issues. At the same time, they smear the Liberals with the innuendo that it is they alone who support human rights and civil liberties, for example with respect to gay marriage, and, unsurprisingly, since many of their leading alumni were kicked upstairs following the electorate's collective bile-ejection in 1997, reform of the Lords is a talisman about how the Liberal Democrats waste government time. In other words, the same old bollocks that refocuses government effort to propping up house prices, keeping the darkies in their place and pretending that a reversion to the 1950s is a noble cause for rallying around.
Instead of Clegg positioning himself as a party leader, fighting his corner and arguing through his differences from his captors, he comes across as an eager apologist for the Coalition as a concept, rather than as a vehicle for Liberal policies. There have clearly been successes where Liberal influence has mitigated the malevolent authoritarianism of the Tories, and there may even be occasions where there is mildly intemperate language behind closed doors, but this isn't apparent. Clegg gives the impression that his model politician is Neville Chamberlain - always trying to buy time rather than confront the evil in front of him.
About the only faint glimmer from the drubbing is the reality that the Liberal Democrats have no low-risk strategy. 2015's General Election will be horrible, but the choices are now about whether to pretend to be Westminster insiders or to revert to scrapping and fighting for Liberalism at all levels. The party needs to disengage, and fast, from the Coalition. The sight of Ministerial acquiescence (and in the case of Beaker, sickening Thatcherite enthusiasm), when it is hamstrung by the inability of the media and the electorate to understand coalition politics, does not sit well with a party that based its advance on engagement with empowering people and the quality of life.
Instead of endorsing the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats should sit outside the structure. Even "confidence and supply" is now too generous an offer to the Tories - instead the party should make it clear that it will support policies introduced by the Tories that are in line with the Coalition agreement, but will oppose anything beyond that, and that should Labour, Liberals or any other party introduce measures in line with Liberal Democrat policy then they will be supported. If the Tories don't keep their side of the bargain, then the process unravels, and the Liberals are both seen to be different and, I suspect, to have curbed the worst excesses of neo-con nuttery over the last two years as every Nadine Dorries breaks cover to demand frothing right-wing policies.
This is no consolation to the hundreds and thousands of Liberal Democrats who have been humiliated by Clegg's behaviour. Yet a strategy for survival is the least that they can expect from him, and if he can offer no narrative that provides even the prospect of regrouping over the next decade, he must be removed. As a libertarian liberal, the existence of a party where this can be articulated is important, but the label isn't. There is genuine anger and disenfranchisement out there, which the Liberals used to be able to understand and at least partly engage with. Talking the Tory talk cuts no ice, and unless Clegg and his advisers wake up to that then he will have no party machine to speak of, and his personal survival will rest on his puppet-masters' largesse. If he is that Machiavellian then the faster we run away the better.