Monday, 26 May 2014

Is This the End for Nick Clegg ?

After what can only be described as a poor set of local election results and a catastrophic set of European Parliamentary Election results, the febrile Press are already seething with the possible intrigue of the fall of a Party leader and the question as to whether a Party leader can survive.

Now, I could be talking about David Cameron who presided over the Conservative Party finishing third in a national election for the first time and a poor set of local election results or even Labour party leader Ed Miliband for whom an excellent performance in London masked a thoroughly modest effort in the rest of England but I'm not.

Nick Clegg is the man on the spot, the rabbit in the headlights at the moment and the question is whether he can survive.

He doesn't sound like a man ready to walk away and there are still plenty of Liberal Democrat elders and senior Party officials who seem willing to rush to his defence but among some activists (especially those smarting after defeat) the mood is mutinous.

I'll be honest - I've always liked Nick Clegg. I didn't know much about him before he stood for the Party leadership and he impressed me at the London Hustings and I was happy to vote for him over Chris Huhne (and that was a bullet dodged by the Party).

In May 2010 he outpointed David Cameron in the first televised debate and for a brief instant was the man in the sun. However, as anyone who becomes an existential threat to the Conservative Party soon discovers, the pro-Tory Press are nothing if not vicious when such threats become manifest. Clegg was reviled and brutally criticised by the Mail and other papers and that, combined with a more assured Cameron performance in the final debate, saw the party lose seats and votes from 2005.

Nonetheless, with 57 seats, the Liberal Democrats held the balance of power and, thanks to David Cameron, the Coalition came into being. For many Liberal Democrats voters, members and activists, the very act of co-operating with the hated Conservatives was an act of unforgiveable treachery though no one has, since May 2010, offered a cohesive and credible alternative to what happened and why it happened.

Unfortunately, Nick Clegg then made two disastrous mistakes from which neither he nor the Party has ever recovered - first, tuition fees. The problem was that during the 2010 election campaign, some Liberal Democrat candidates had publicly supported an NUS-backed pledge to oppose any rise in tuition fees. This seemed to become Party policy even though I don't recall it being Party policy.

In the post-election negotiations, the Liberal Democrats won the option to abstain on any future vote over tuition fees but this was seen as a betrayal by students and worse, it seemed that Nick Clegg went out of his way to support the rise in fees. In politics, among the many cardinal rules is the one about saying one thing to get elected and doing the opposite once elected.

The U-turn on tuition fees destroyed Nick Clegg's credibility at a stroke. Had he resigned then and there, it might have saved the Party years of angst and anguish. The justification for the U-turn was the severe national economic situation which made the phasing out of fees impractical but that wasn't the point. Nick had said one thing in Opposition and done the other in power - he wasn't and won't be the only politician in that situation but the personal and political consequence of what seemed to be rank duplicity was and would be considerable.

The first part of that payment was compounded by the second mistake - the AV Referendum. AV has never been Liberal Democrat policy - party policy supports the Single Transferrable Vote (STV). The problem was, I suspect, that Nick Clegg believed he couldn't sell the idea of Coalition to the Party without some kind of possibility of electoral reform. The Conservatives would never voluntarily give up FPTP - after all, they benefit hugely from it - and they wouldn't offer even a referendum on STV which would destroy them as a cohesive force.

Thus the Conservatives offered a referendum on AV but whether Clegg believed or was promised neutrality from David Cameron, he didn't get it. With many Liberal Democrats unenthused, an active Conservative-led campaign to keep FPTP and his own personal credibility destroyed by the tuition fees debacle, the AV Referendum was soundly lost and few tears were shed.

Since May 2011, Nick Clegg, who often talks a lot of good sense, has found himself the most derided politician in Britain. What he does say is immediately undermined by the memory of the tuition fees U-turn and the widely-held belief (disastrous for any politician) that he cannot be trusted or believed.

The Liberal Democrats have suffered the backlash of all this and now have just over 2,250 Councillors, having lost around 40% of their number through defection and defeat and now have just one MEP as they had in the 80s with Sir Russell Johnston of blessed memory.

Yet for those who call publicly and privately for Nick Clegg to go, the truth is he has one more kicking, the final kicking, to face. Next year, at the General Election, it won't be Councillors who will take the hit vicariously for Nick Clegg but the MPs and perhaps Clegg himself and it is important his happens for as both John Major discovered in 1997 and Gordon Brown (to a lesser extent) four years later, the Leader of a Party has to personalise the anger toward the party and only when the Leader himself is torn down is the public fury spent and the Party able to move on and rebuild.

So I see no benefit in cheating the gallows - Nick Clegg has to go into the 2015 election as Party Leader and be the scapegoat on whom all the sins are placed and sent into the political; wilderness not by the Party but by the public.

Yet the Party must learn from this experience - talking about Coalition and working with other parties is laudable and a plural political system is desirable if not essential for a healthy democracy but working with parties requires thought and management. Policy cannot be made on the hoof, uncosted and poorly thought through.  Sometimes it may not be popular but it can be right not to cave in to the group shouting the loudest - populism is easy until you try and govern on that basis.

The Liberal Democrats face a mauling next year but it won't be the end and I'm absolutely certain the experience of Government won't be wasted or lost. The Party will emerge from the Coalition more astute and more careful and more professional. That in itself will be welcome but the time in the fire is not yet over.

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