In the first of the Mr Bean movies, the protagonist accidentally sneezes on a priceless painting that will soon be the centre piece of a grand exhibition.
Keen to keep the painting clean, he takes a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe away the snot. Unfortunately, a pen has leaked in his pocket, and the handkerchief inadvertently smears blue ink on the portrait.
Ten agonising minutes follow in which each of Mr Bean’s efforts to hide the damage makes the situation immeasurably worse, and by the time he abandons the effort, the face of the portrait has been bleached white and scrawled over with a cartoon smiley face. That's what Liberal Democrat party conference has been like: hapless, nonesensical and doomed.
There is a howling contradiction in the Lib Dem’s pitch for votes. On the one hand, they know that they need to distance themselves from the right-wing, regressive policies of the government they have participated. On the other hand, they have to justify their participation.
Danny Alexander decries the “heartless, soulless measures of “this government” in one breath, and brags about how the Liberals “are at the heart” of it in the next. He also criticised excessive austerity while claiming that “Liberal Democratic economic ideas” were “delivering success for all of our people.”
If they hadn’t been in coalition, so the Lib Dem argument runs, the Tories would be even worse. But if it wasn’t for Lib Dem support, the Tories wouldn’t even have a majority! Rather than acting as a brake on austerity, the Lib Dems are enabling it.
In the event of another hung parliament, there may be calls for a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. Socialists and trade unionists should fight hard against this idea. The Labour Party, for all of its many faults, at least has structural and political roots in a workers’ movement. The same is not true of the Lib Dems, it is a thoroughly bourgeois party that is committed to anti-working class cuts and privatisations. They would pull a Labour government even further to the right.
The Lib Dem conference is a miserable sight. Hated government ministers deliver half-hearted entreaties to a public that isn’t listening and doesn’t care. The Lib Dems have dug themselves into a deep, deep hole.
After the election, the Labour Party must not make the mistake of helping them out of it.