The Liberal Democrats stand for a distinct political ideology. It is an ideology built around both socially and economically liberal precepts. In as far as our ruling Labour government can be said to have an ideology at all, it coincides with Liberalism only incidentally.
Labour stands for pragmatism, and where it does not there is still a core of values that are collectivist and not individual. Sometimes people are prepared to claim the moral high ground for policies of social solidarity and redistribution of wealth. Liberals may argue in favour of equality of opportunity, we can not argue in favour- as Socialists do- of "and equal society". The reason is simple: Socialism does not work.
If one places equality above freedom, then eventually we get tyranny. This is why, while we may argue in favour of a more equal society as being a stronger society, the tools that we may use to gain -in our view- socially desirable outcomes must rest upon freedom above all else. As PJ O'Rourke says: "My wealth does not cause your poverty". Individual attainment of wealth per se is not immoral any more than higher skill in the arts or sciences or sport is immoral. It is this view that makes the chasm between Liberalism and Socialism.
In that sense, Conservatives and Liberals do have more in common in their basic ideology then either do with Socialism. Only Labour pragmatism permits even the idea that Liberal Democrats or Conservatives could co-operate at either local or indeed national level. Yet, paradoxically, this is probably why the venom between Lib Dems and Labour is a bit less than between Lib Dems and Labour.
Liberal Democrats already believe that we have won the intellectual argument against labour, and the level of pragmatism amongst many Labourites is such that the either don't recognise that the debate is what it is, or if they do, then they discount its significance.
Yet the Conservatives, despite assuming much of the language of Liberalism, are a more potent threat both practically- in the sense that Liberal Democrats fight with Conservatives over more constituencies- and also intellectually. Although in Scotland, the relationship between Tory and Liberal Democrats is generally cordial, in most other places it is actually quite bitter.
Paradoxically many Conservatives assume that Liberal Democrats are careerist opportunists. In fact, the fact that the Liberal Democrats have been generally out of power demonstrates the exact opposite. Given the difficulty of even getting elected as a Liberal Democrat- I speak with some experience- thee fact is that the party is not only ideological, but quite purist about its ideology.
Thus Conservatives, still thinking of the Liberal Democrats as leftists, may regard the likely Liberal Democrat commitment to reducing taxation as unprincipled opportunism. It is not. It is a direct result of the failure of Conservative pragmatism to recognise the logical result of Liberal principles. The collectivist imperative of Labour has created a highly inefficient public sector with an ethos that values equality of poverty and not freedom of opportunity. The taxes that support this are already too high.
Tory pragmatism- exemplified by George Osbourne- believes that electoral advantage lies in maintaining government expenditure. Liberal Democrats believe that it is now unacceptable to permit the continuing waste of money that much government expenditure is incurring.
The Liberal Democrat position, on principle, has not altered. Yet at the next election it now seems likely that the Conservatives will be closer to Labour. The Liberal Democrats will be alone in advocating a general reduction in direct taxation. It will infuriate many Conservatives to be outflanked from the right.