While their slide from the dizzying heights of the “Clegg bounce” weeks earlier did not come as a complete surprise, nobody in their camp expected things to fall apart so soon, though he is now likely to act as kingmaker to either Labour’s Gordon Brown or the Tories’ David Cameron.
As the night dragged into morning it became increasingly clear the Lib Dems, for all their hopes of pushing Labour into second place in voter share, had actually lost seats.
Just five days ago a YouGov poll placed the Lib Dems on a princely 95 seats. Nick Clegg had hoped to capture at least 80 – a 17-seat increase on 2005 – and others were predicting them to top the 100 mark.
But the election started badly when the party failed to win a string of its target seats – in particular Guildford, for which it required just a 0.09 per cent swing to capture it from the Tories. Instead incumbent Anne Milton held the seat.
But worse was to come with the fall of figurehead Lembit Opik in a shock 13 per cent swing in Montgomeryshire.
Opik said: “It’s a sad time for me. If you stand in politics you have to countenance the possibility of defeat. I didn’t expect this.”
The Lib Dems will now explore whether they can work with one of the bigger parties – most probably Labour – in a bid to try to push through the electoral reform that has formed a lynchpin of their campaign.
However, their weakened position makes this less likely, especially as even a Lib-Lab coalition would not form an outright majority.
Clegg insisted he was “proud” of the way his party had conducted their campaign, adding that he had “engaged” with the public, even if he had not earned their votes.
Rare good news included treasury spokesman Vince Cable comfortably defending Twickenham and shadow home secretary Chris Huhne gaining a swing of three per cent from the Tories to hold Eastleigh.