The problem that both Labour and the Conservatives face is that the surge in support for the Liberal Democrats is not just about the good performance that Nick Clegg put in to the first television debate- though this may have come as a surprise to them, used as they are to Prime Minister's question time, where he is usually marginalised. The fact is that Liberal Democrat support was already growing well before the debate took place: Vince Cable had already won the Chancellors debate, and the Liberal Democrat manifesto was also well received.
The "Clegg surge" has not come out of a clear sky: there had already been signs that the Liberal Democrats were set for a good performance. The other two parties are now facing something that British politics has not seen in decades: a political tipping point for reform. The expenses scandal underlined to the British people the corruption of the current constitution. The economic crisis underlined the intellectual bankruptcy of politicians who preferred to ignore the credit bubble and who were so deluded that they thought they could simply decree an end to the economic cycle- or as they put it "an end to boom and bust". The fact that politics had been hijacked by unprincipled advertising merchants who talked about political brands, rather than political ideals made the British people, quite rightly, angry, cynical and disgusted with the political class en masse.
Some commentators have suggested that the Liberal Democrats are also part of the political class, and view with hostility our claims to be different. However there is a very simple test: who has all the money? The Conservatives have the donations from Ashcroft and several other millionaires, Labour the millions from the Unions. The Liberal Democrat dodgy donations? Yes, Michael Brown was a crook but his donation was accepted legally and the party has been found to have acted in good faith by the independent regulator. More to the point, he was not offered any special benefit by the party- and certainly not a peerage in exchange for donations. On expenses: the Lib Dem MPs were generally found to have also acted in good faith, and where sums needed to be repaid, they were on average a few hundred pounds: Conservatives have been repaying tens of thousands, and several Labour figures are facing criminal charges. So it is simply not true that "you are all the same". The fact is that this election the Conservatives will be spending more than any political party has ever spent on a campaign. The Liberal Democrats, as usual, will be working on a shoe-string: we may have not have very much money, but we also owe no-one any favours.
This leaves Labour and the Conservatives with a problem. they can hardly open up an attack on the Lib Dems when their own record in that area is so much worse.
The Tory problems are particularly acute, because they will not engage in an argument about policies. The shadow cabinet has tried to open up an attack on the Liberal Democrats over Europe by saying that Mr. Clegg's Party "supports a European super state". Does he take the British people for fools? It is the work of seconds to examine the Liberal Democrat manifesto and see that this Tory line of attack is simply not true. The Liberal Democrats support our membership of the European Union and say so. The Conservatives make hostile noises, but they do not support withdrawal from the EU- no matter what mood they try to convey. If they did support withdrawal, it might be a lot more honest- but it would show the scale of the economic crisis and dislocation that leaving would involve. Mr. Cameron when faced with the question EU: in or out, replies "In, but it needs changes". Mr. Clegg says we should be "in" and make changes too. No one supports an EU super-state, and the Tories by pretending that the Liberal Democrats do are just playing the politics of the playground that is what is turning off the voters about the entire current system. Even the Euro is a matter for debate: we can not join anytime soon anyway, but if we could, in what way would controlling the economy with structural discipline be worse than devaluing the Pound by 30%? There is a big price for an independent currency, and in a few years we may well decide that it is not worth paying: but that must be based on a sober and a fair assessment of what is in the best economic and political interests of our country in the long term: it is not some kind of "betrayal" or the "end of the UK" which the Tories and their allies in the Daily Mail are screaming at us so shrilly.
The Tories take a Liberal Democrat position and instead of debating it on its merits, they try to say that the Liberal Democrats have adopted a position that they find easier to oppose: instead of a debate about the future of the EU and our role within it, they try to say that "the Lib Dems support the abolition of Britain"; instead of a debate about what kind of immigration we need and how it should be controlled, they say that the Liberal Democrats will simply "open the doors to unregulated immigration". in fact the amnesty for illegals already in the country is a necessary first step to setting up a tighter system of controls that bring more of the people we need: skilled workers; is fairer to the people we have a responsibility too: refugees; and which keeps out undesirables. When Conservatives, UKIP and the rest talk about stopping any immigration whatsoever, they are stupid, not just legally and morally, but also economically too. There is a price for immigration, but there are also benefits- the question is to set rules that are fair and effective and which brings the maximum benefit to our country. A Tory smear about "opening the flood gates" is just childish.
The Tories may be offensive about Liberal Democrat policies, but I for one am not defensive. I believe that the thought and work of decades that has gone into our policies will show them to be robust and well crafted. Bring on the scrutiny I say! Let us have a real examination- instead of shrill smears, let us have a reasonable discussion- let us concede that no party has all the answers and that combining ideas is sensible and not shabby compromise. That would be a whole new political world: one where politicians can talk about ideas and not image, talk about policies and not patronage and put the national interest before the sectional one. Above all let us have a debate where shrill smears and straightforward lies can be treated with the contempt that they deserve.