Inside politics: Saying sorry to angry members may not be enough to save Nick Clegg’s leadership of the Lib Dems
ANYBODY sitting in the conference hall in Brighton yesterday at around 12:20pm would have been in no doubt that the Lib Dem delegates love their leader. The problem for them is that the man they see as their leader, spiritually at least, is not the man who holds the actual office.
Vince Cable’s speech spoke to the Lib Dems in the voice that resonates with them. Somehow his gloomy, flat tones gives him an air of authority, as well as conveying to the audience that he feels their pain with being in coalition with the Tories.
In comparison, the leader with the title, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s voice hits shrill notes as he tries to reach out to the party members. His question-and-answer session on Sunday, on the day of his wedding anniversary, was an exercise in marriage counselling with his party and, even though he left to applause, he clearly had not convinced them.
It is odd, after all, that Clegg is the one who apologised for breaking the pledge on student fees, but Cable, who has not really apologised, was the minister who pushed through trebling those fees. It is Clegg who is blamed and Cable who is loved.
This is why the Lib Dem Voice poll of party members gives Clegg a negative 2 per cent rating – but fortunately for him the week could have been much worse.
What is obvious in Brighton this week is that many of the Lib Dem members have simply stayed away.
The angry crowd have decided to not come to Brighton because they do not see how they can save their party from its death lock with the Tories and they feel its leaders, with the exception of Cable, have sold out for ministerial office.
This was put in stark terms during the Q&A by a member from Nottingham, who told the leader bluntly that he was speaking for the members who were too angry to come to Brighton.
The lack of angry members means that the leadership has easily won its votes as delegates appear simply to have been resigned to backing what they say. But there is no joy in doing it.
It also means that, while Clegg and Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander – more right-wing than George Osborne, according to one delegate – have been met with stony silence at times, there have not actually been any boos.
It is possible then that Clegg will walk away from Brighton feeling that he has survived a potentially damaging conference relatively unscathed. But such an impression would be a false one, because in the end it is the members who did not come – and the former Lib Dem supporters in the wider electorate – who he is yet to convince to do the hard miles of knocking on doors and handing out leaflets in an election campaign.
Nick Clegg may genuinely be sorry, but it is yet to be decided whether his apology has saved his leadership.
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