The Liberal Democrats (and the Liberal Party and SDP before them) have been the beneficiaries of the protest vote ("neither of the above") for many years, but I have also known people - admittedly few - who have voted positively for the third party. Reasons usually centred around a 'new type of politics', 'great ideas', or 'the only party who are honest with the electorate'. Anyone who has studied local and national elections will know that, in a contest, the Lib Dems and their predecessors have been anything but honest and fair, but let that pass for the moment.
So how have the poor old Lib Dems, so keen on 'honest' politics and 'listening to the people' and 'honouring their promises' got to the stage where students (their natural support: unrealistic policies believed in by idealistic people) are attacking them in the streets and burning Nick Clegg in effigy? (Both metaphorically, I might add.) How can 'straightforward' Nick Clegg be such a hate-figure amongst the young and politically-aware? How can the wisest of the wise Vince Cable be see-sawing between voting against and abstaining on a Bill of which he was the principal architect?
Well, folks, this is what happens when you get into government. It was always said that the Lib Dems can promise anything in their election manifestos because they would never be called upon to do anything as difficult as deliver it. And the events of the last month prove that to be true. You promise, nay 'pledge', to people that you will fight an increase in tuition fees, and that pledge will come back to bite you. It's not so easy when you actually have to make the decisions, is it?
The next few months will, I think, prove critical to the future of the party. Either they will stick to their guns and make some tough choices - which will involve going back on things they earnestly promised in the election campaign - and emerge a mature and credible political force, or they will listen to their activist base, take their bat home, shrug off responsibility and cause the collapse of the coalition. If that happened, no-one (apart from the terminally dreamy) would ever take them seriously again. And none of the other parties would trust them in the future, which would send the Lib Dems back to the wilderness from which they seemed to be emerging.
Nick Clegg has done a great job in getting them as far as they have, but he will need to hold his nerve.