So much has been written of the Lloyd George-Asquith split of December 1916, identifying it as a seminal moment in the Liberal Party’s fortunes, that it is tempting to assume that the formation of the second wartime coalition marked a point of fundamental and irreversible division, after which little could be done to halt the processes of political decline. Arguably, however, it was less the fact of the split than its duration that did the party the most damage. What is beyond dispute is that between 1916 and 1923 — and, even in 1923, reunion and reconciliation were at best only partially secured — the Liberal Party moved from being the leading party of government into the position of the third force in British politics. In the same seven-year period, the Labour Party moved from the periphery of the political spectrum, first to the status of official opposition and then to the verge of forming its first, albeit minority, government. As the third party, the Liberals would have to operate within an electoral system that fails to convert a minority party’s share of the popular vote into a commensurate share of seats in the House of Commons. This fact in turn has the further long-term effect of discouraging the electorate from backing such a party, out of a desire to use their votes in support of a realistic contender for government.
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