Nick Clegg is in better political shape than anyone would have guessed
It is too early to call him the comeback kid of British politics, but Nick Clegg enters the party conference season in better shape than anyone expected him to be four months ago. Back then, his party did not dare put his face on its campaign leaflets. Even Liberal Democrat ministers didn’t expect Clegg to lead the party into the next election.
This is beginning to change. Clegg looks happier than he has in months: the hunted look has gone from his face. Last week, watching him walk through the corridors of the Institute of Contemporary Arts on the way to a party for one of his aides, I was struck by how relaxed he was.A few months ago, it is hard to imagine that he’d have been as comfortable wandering around such a student hang-out.
The Liberal Democrat leader’s mood has been lifted by the beginnings of a recovery for his party. It is still far less popular than it was before he entered into coalition with the Tories, but, according to the polls, its support is no longer vanishing. Better still, the party has been more loyal to Clegg than expected. There’s no talk of leadership challenges or anything like that. This year’s conference will not be a make or break affair for him.
In part, Clegg’s recovery is a consequence of his giving the party what it wanted: distance from the Tories. Following the humiliating referendum loss and the Liberal Democrats’ appalling results in the May elections, Clegg concluded he had no choice but to put space between himself and his coalition partners.
This has involved a fair amount of artifice. The Deputy Prime Minister has posed as the defender of the NHS against wicked free-market Tory reforms, never mind the fact that Clegg had enthusiastically endorsed these same reforms. He also announced that he had stopped the Tories introducing profit-making schools into the state sector. He didn’t mention that the most compelling intellectual advocates of this idea were his favourite think tank, Centre Forum, and one of his senior advisers respectively.
This strategy has been helped, albeit unintentionally, by Tory backbenchers and Conservative-leaning newspapers who have taken to complaining about how much influence the junior coalition partner is having on the direction of government. At the
opening of the new Liberal Democrat headquarters on Monday night, the joke was that Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP who accused David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions of being bossed around by his deputy, is their most effective press officer.
Clegg’s left-wing posturing has soothed his party’s fevered brow. But it’s a dangerous tactic because it is so obviously insincere — this is, after all, how he got into the mess on tuition fees in the first place. For this reason, the Lib Dem party conference next week will mark a shift away from this approach. Rather than indulging his party’s oppositionist mentality, Clegg intends to show the country that it has become a serious party of government again.
In the analysis of one Liberal Democrat close to Clegg, the big divide in the party
The Lib Dems can’t be Britain’s principle social democratic party because we already have one: it’s called Labour now is not between left and right or social democrats and liberals, but between those who want to use the coalition to turn the party into one of government and those who view it as a mere interlude before it returns to being one of protest.
The proxy in this battle is tuition fees policy. Those Liberal Democrats whose hearts rule their heads, such as the party’s deputy leader Simon Hughes and its president Tim Farron, still think that the manifesto at the next election can again commit them to abolishing student fees. But those of a more hard-headed bent dismiss this idea out of hand as unrealistic and unaffordable. In the words of one Clegg confidant, ‘the lesson of tuition fees is that we must never again produce a manifesto commitment that isn’t fit for government’.
‘I blame myself for our son becoming a Liberal Democrat.’
Clegg will probably win this battle for the simple reason that most Liberal Democrats will grasp that a promise to scrap fees at the next election would not be believed and would simply dredge up the whole row. This reflects one of the reasons that Clegg’s position is so secure: his opponents have no real alternative strategy.
But if Clegg is to achieve his goal of persuading the country that his party is a serious one that can be trusted with power, then he needs to articulate a clearer sense of what it actually stands for and what it is doing in office. This is, as one member of the Clegg circle explains, imperative for the Liberal Democrats as otherwise — in this ‘anti-politics age’ — people will always believe that they only took office for the ministerial cars and salaries.
Clegg’s close advisers know where they want to take the party. Their project is to mould the Lib Dems into a proper liberal party, sound on economics but with a social conscience. In this aim, what Clegg believes and what is politically sensible are aligned. The Liberal Democrats will never become a serious force as a social democratic party for the simple reason that Britain already has one of those. It’s called the Labour party. But there is space on the British political scene for a party of the liberal centre. Indeed, this space is getting larger as David Cameron — faced with the realities of government — becomes more Conservative. One Clegg aide reflects that ‘if Cameron’s not going to be a one nation Tory, then it’s easier for us to be one nation Liberals’.
It is increasingly likely that Clegg will lead his party into the next election. There is no serious pretender to his throne. The two Cabinet ministers who harbour leadership ambitions — Chris Huhne and Vince Cable — have both suffered more in the last 18 months than he has. It is hard to imagine any of the party’s backbenchers as Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Added to this, the continuing inability of Labour and the Tories to expand much beyond their traditional support bases means a hung parliament at the next election — and another coalition.
The fateful decision to enter into coalition might prove not to be the end of the Liberal Democrats, but the remaking of them.
the spectator | 17 September 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk