THEY are hard words for a politician to hear, but to hear them from one’s own side is harder yet. Nick Clegg yesterday had to cope with one of his most senior colleagues condemning the Liberal Democrats as a party with “no roots, no principles and no values”.
Lord Oakeshott, as a parting gift to accompany his resignation, said the party was heading for disaster if it went into next year’s general election with Mr Clegg still at the helm.
On this last point at least it is hard to disagree. Last week’s local council and European Parliament elections, together with every single poll over the past two years, show the Lib Dems resembling a political car crash in slow motion. They are now battling with the Greens to be the fourth party in British politics, and the fifth in Scotland.
Some Westminster insiders report that the forthcoming Newark by-election on 5 June could provide the coup de grâce to Mr Clegg’s career. But others doubt if he will even make it that far. We are surely in the final chapter of Nick Clegg’s career as Lib Dem leader.
It matters little if he was right to take the Lib Dems into the coalition with the Conservatives, justified at the time as being in the national interest to provide stable government during the financial crisis. The reality is that many millions of Lib Dem voters have not forgiven him for this decision, nor for the role the Lib Dems have subsequently played in propping up a Tory-led administration.
Mr Clegg may justly claim that he has been a restraining force on right-wing Tory instincts, and that the government has been more centrist than would otherwise have been the case. But voters are not in an understanding or forgiving mood.
Lord Oakeshott was right to resign from the Lib Dems yesterday. His actions – commissioning opinion polls to deliberately paint his party leader as a liability, and then leaking them to the press – were the political equivalent of treason.
In this it seems he may have form – Sir Menzies Campbell yesterday hinted that Lord Oakeshott had been the source of destabilising rumours when Sir Ming was Lib Dem leader.
Lord Oakeshott says his good friend Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, knew about the freelance opinion polling. Mr Cable denies he knew about polling in Mr Clegg’s constituency, but was aware in “general terms” of polling done elsewhere.
Mr Clegg, however damaged he may be, may well want to speak to his Cabinet colleague about exactly what he knew, and what if anything he did with this information.
Questions about Mr Cable are, however, something of a sideshow compared to the black cloud that hovers over Mr Clegg’s head and seems destined to follow him wherever he goes. It is now only a matter of time before he stands down. British politics is about to enter a new phase.
All change for the sleeper train
FOR those who regularly get the sleeper train to and from London, news that Australian firm Serco has won the contract to run the route has been greeted with great excitement.
There is now much speculation about the luxurious sleeping arrangements, the on-board showers, the lavish eating and drinking options, that may soon be on offer to the cross-Border traveller.
A new era in long-distance rail travel is on the cards. But there will surely be some who will wave goodbye to the old-style sleeper with a degree of fondness.
Who will be able to forget the little packets of crackers and cheese that constituted supper; the scratchy blankets; the trickle of water in the tiny sink, with a sliver of soap; the uneasy social etiquette of sharing a compartment with a stranger when travelling second class; the small-hours shunting of coaches as the train split for onward travel to Edinburgh and Glasgow; and the rat-tat-tat on the door at some unearthly hour, heralding the delivery of a small plastic cup of weak instant coffee, invariably either scalding hot or lukewarm.
Then there was the famous sleeper bar. One of the reasons for the great camaraderie among Scottish MPs, across party divides and down many decades, was the shared experience of a few drams on the way home to Scotland on a Thursday night. Sometimes the conviviality meant MPs would step unsteadily down from the train at Waverley or Glasgow Central having failed to sleep in the bed they had paid for.
The bar was also a great social leveller, taking in toffs heading for the grouse moors and itinerant workers. The new sleeper may well be an improvement, but the old one will live long in the memory.