Germany is one of the few countries that Nick Clegg has been able to look to for tips on
how to be a successful Liberal party in coalition with a larger Conservative party. In 2006, Guido Westerwelle even took a delegation of Free Democrats to a Lib Dem frontbench meeting. Coffee House
once predicted that, if the AV referendum was won, Clegg could one day become
Britain’s Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a permanent powerbroker.
The parties are of course different in many ways. The Free Democrats are decidedly more pro-market and pro-business than the Liberal Democrats. They also have a lot more experience of government.
Before the last election, the Free Democrats were part of Helmut Kohl’s governments until 1998. And whereas the Lib Dems might have considered coalition with Labour in 1997, the Free Democrats have
sided with the CDU and the CSU since the 1980s (except in 2002, when "equidistance" was their buzzword).
But, today, Britain’s Liberal Democrats and Germany’s Free Democrats look like they are in the same political bind. They are both suffering in the polls and their leadership is feeling the
pressure. Not too long ago, Westerwelle was being hailed as a hero, who could do little wrong. Same with Clegg. Now the FDP leader is being blamed by party activists for everything that is wrong
with the party. Same with Clegg.
Westerwelle has come under fire after his confidante, Helmut Metzner, disclosed internal information about the coalition negotiations between the FDP and the CDU to the US Embassy. It echoes the
Cable revelations over here – but the situation for the FDP is a more serious one. A movement is afoot to topple Westerwelle from the party leadership ahead of regional elections next year.
Parliamentary leaders from seven German states met recently to tell the FDP leader that his time might be up. One parliamentarian went so far as to compare the party’s condition with the "last
days of East Germany."
It has not yet come to this for the Lib Dems, but the leadership must still be concerned. Labour and the NUS are both employing a "decapitation strategy," aimed at toppling Clegg from the
party leadership and, in the NUS’s case, removing him from Parliament. Though Clegg is safe for now, senior Lib Dems have previously called for more of a Lib Dem imprint on policy and voiced
criticism – some muted, some clear – of the leadership.
When he visited Berlin earlier in the year – and impressed the press with his fluent German – Clegg was greeted by Westerwelle as one of his "closest friends". The Lib Dem
must hope it is a friendship based on a shared political philosophy, not a similar fate.