Nick Clegg has urged the Liberal Democrats to show "courage and vision" in making the coalition work, arguing his party has not been "found wanting".
In his end-of-conference speech, the leader said members faced making a choice between "protest" and "power".
Clegg makes a sensible point -- a party in power is different from a protest party, because when you're in power you have to make decisions.
These decisions will have winners and losers, and inevitably the losers will hate you more than the winners like you, so a party of power has to accept the knocks that come from being in office, whereas a party of protest can just vacuum up lots of protest votes from people who don't like either of the parties of power (Labour and the Tories).
But the problem with Clegg's argument is the Lib Dems aren't in power. They are in office, true, and Nick gets to call himself by the empty title of Deputy Prime Minister, but this a Tory government, not a Lib Dem one.
To see why, imagine if the Lib Dems had won a majority at the general election. What policies would they pursue? I expect that the top of their list would be proportional representation for Westminster.
There's a good reason for this: the Lib Dems got 23% of the vote but due to the broken electoral system, only 9% of the seats. While there is an obvious self-insterested reason for the Lib Dems to do this, there's an even bigger reason of fairness and democracy to do it: overall, 35% of the vote went to candidates other than the Conservatives or Labour, but together they only got 13% of the seats.
FPTP tells a third of the electorate "fuck off, your vote doesn't matter and nor do you". This isn't democracy.
Put it another way: Con+Lab got 87% of the seats on 65% of the votes. But the reality is even worse, because millions voted either Lab or Con, not because they liked them, but because they were slightly better than the other lot. I estimate this accounts for at least a quarter of Con+Lab voters, so the number who voted for them out of conviction was about 49% of the electorate. (This may be an over-estimate: the last time we had a nationwide PR election, the combined Con+Lab vote share was 43%).
So why don't we have PR? because the Tories wouldn't allow it, of course. In fact, they wouldn't even allow the voters to be asked it in a referendum, instead they only allowed Clegg to have a referendum on AV, which isn't a proportional system (it can be even less proportional than FPTP).
And that's what I mean when I say the Lib Dems are in government but not in power.
The problem arose with the coalition negotiations, in whch the Lib Dems were very much outplayed by the Tories.
My reading is that Clegg went into the negotiations with the attitude "we've only got 9% of MPs, we can't expect much". The Lib Dems also only made a half-hearted attempt to talk to Labour -- they should have done more, because it's obvious that they would get a better deal if they were seen to have other options.
Clegg should instead have had the attitude "we got 23% of the votes, for every 3 people who voted Tory, 2 voted Lib Dem, and of the ones who voted neither, most prefer us to the Tories". He should have insisted on a 2:3 split on policies and on cabinet ministers.
Clegg should have pressed for PR for Westminster, stating that not to give it would be a betrayal of the 7 million people who voted Lib Dem, and that if Cameron wasn't prepared to treat those seven million voters with respect, he wasn't serious about a coalition.
If the Tories refused to budge (which they probably would), he should have reluctantly agreed to AV as long as he also got a firm commitment to PR for either the Lords or for England and Wales local government.
If the Tories said "a referendum for AV", then Clegg should have countered by saying we also need a referendum for the changes the Tories want (constituency boundaries and reduced number of MPs) and on any other controversial Tory policy (e.g. NHS reform). If the Tories stuck to the line of "a referendum for your stuff, but not for our stuff", then Clegg should have walked.
At all points in the negotiations, he should have kept one eye on looking good in the event that they collapsed; his line should have been "I was sticking up for the 7 million people who voted Lib Dem". If the Tories and Labour accused him of failing in his duty by not accepting a coalition with either party, he should have retorted that the two of them should go into coalition together -- and pointed out that on many issues such as tuition fees or civil liberties, they have more in common with each other than with the Lib Dems.
It goes without saying that Clegg should never have reneged on his pledge on tuition fees.
The above is roughly what people mean when they describe Clegg as "weak" and "out of his depth".
Of course, it's easy for me to say that with the benefit of hindsight. I might have cocked it up as badly as Clegg has. But I'm not leader of the 3rd biggest party in Britain.
If 2015 produces another hung parliament, I hope the Lib Dems will heed the lessons of this parliament. If they don't, they will look very stupid indeed.