It is the worst of times for Clegg but he could yet become PM if Cameron falters over independence, writes Bill Jamieson
PITY Nick Clegg. The Rennard affair has found him trapped and his leadership skills under intense assault. The Liberal Democrats are being torn apart as its former chief executive refuses repeated advice to apologise in the face of accusations of sexual misconduct. Now another inquiry beckons. Lord Rennard is reaching for his lawyers, while his accusers refuse to rule out legal proceedings against him.
It is the worst of times for Clegg. He is seen as weak and ineffectual. He is unable to halt this rush to self-destruction. Supporters despair, while opponents revel in schadenfreude. How they relish the spectacle of sanctimonious, politically correct, holier-than-thou Lib Dem moralisers tearing themselves apart. What prospect now of the party being taken seriously, or the career of its leader coming out of this nose-dive? Yet the course of politics never ceases to surprise. If this current imbroglio was considered an improbable fiction just a few weeks ago, consider this: that Nick Clegg could be prime minister this autumn.
The world of politics is as prone to “black swan” events – high-profile, hard-to-predict events beyond the realm of normal expectations. Such events are outwith consensus expectation, and are rare. But they are convulsive in their consequence.
Today, the immediate position of Prime Minister David Cameron looks reasonably secure. There is no party rival breathing down his neck. The Eurosceptic wing does not have a leader that could challenge him this side of the 2015 general election.
So far, Scotland’s independence referendum in September has made little impact on politics at Westminster. There are ritual declarations of support for the Union. But the Better Together campaign has yet to galvanise opinion across the UK. Cameron has declined to take part in a head-to-head debate with Alex Salmond on the grounds that this is a Scottish matter for Scottish people to debate and decide. The No vote continues to have a commanding lead in the polls. But even among supporters of Better Together, there is no conviction that the result is in the bag and every expectation that the Yes campaign will narrow the gap. A combination of the Commonwealth Games, the Year of Homecoming, the Bannockburn anniversary, the Ryder Cup and not least an improving economy could boost Scots pride and self-confidence in the critical period before the vote.
A victory, however narrow, for Yes would not only be transformative for Scotland, it would also convulse politics at Westminster. An immediate outcome would be a mood akin to panic as the rest of the UK – and the world – adjusts to the sudden fact of the end of a 300 year-old union and a shrunken standing in world affairs. How did we sleepwalk into this? How did the country’s leaders allow this to happen?
The Westminster politician most exposed to searching post-mortem would be the Prime Minister. The charges likely to be levelled against him would be that the break-up of the UK happened on his watch. He had oversight of the referendum arrangements. By refusing to negotiate ahead of the referendum, he effectively forced the Scottish electorate to walk blindfold into the voting booths with no clarity as to fundamental consequence – the division of North Sea oil revenues, the division of debt, the implications for defence and not least whether an independent Scotland could be sure of sharing a common currency with the rest of the UK.
He allowed Salmond to better him on several fronts – the reduction in the voting age, the timing of the referendum and more latterly the debt guarantee, widely seen as a concession without negotiation. And he refused to take him on in debate. The very course of action that Cameron thought would lift him above the referendum fray would be hurled back at him as a contributory cause of the break-up of Britain.
So how secure is Cameron’s position? Suggestions that he might have to go are by no means confined to SNP “fundies”. In a sober and informed assessment published this week by Walbrook Economics on the implications of independence on UK politics and financial markets, analyst Ewen Stewart believes that his position would be untenable.
“Although there would be no constitutional requirement for the coalition to fall”, he writes, “or indeed David Cameron to resign, in this author’s view he would have no option but to resign. The terms of the referendum were decided on his watch and for the nation to suffer such a seismic shift without ‘falling on his sword’ would be unthinkable in terms of real politik.”
Ironically, the prospect of the derided and discredited Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, taking over as PM may work to secure Cameron’s position. Were Cameron were to go, Clegg would almost certainly become acting Prime Minister while the Conservatives chose another leader. Boris Johnson would be out of the running as he is not an MP. But there would be no lack of possible contenders, including Michael Gove, Theresa May, George Osborne and Philip Hammond.
Cameron out and Clegg as PM? I suspect the market reaction to this sequence of events may be more than “a sub 5 per cent sell off” in the gilts market as Stewart suggests, particularly if Labour were to take advantage of this scattering of the Westminster skittles.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle of this maelstrom, the rUK government would need to agree a cross-party negotiating team to resolve the huge questions of oil revenue division, debt apportionment, currency sharing, division of defence assets and future pension welfare and pension obligations.
The SNP belief that these negotiations could be concluded in 18 months to declare dissolution of the Union on 24 March, 2016 is, says Stewart, “very ambitious”. It is hard to disagree with this assessment, particularly given the pending UK general election in 2015, which would have a critical bearing on the composition of the rUK negotiating team and the stance it would take.
For now, this “Black Swan” is not in sight. Better Together continues to lead in the polls, despite furious daily campaigning by the Yes camp. If the battle is intense now, one shudders to think what it will be like in the home stretch.
Meanwhile, it is Nick Clegg in the firing line. His failure to cauterise the Rennard affair is damaging both to him personally and to his party. Amid all this, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for him in the face of Rennard’s obduracy. A heartfelt apology for the offence taken and a generous tribute to the contribution made by those he has offended might have settled matters a few weeks ago. This is not a matter of law but of gentlemanly conduct, applicable in all times and in all situations. But Rennard is trapped, like the central character in Anthony Trollope’s novel He Knew He Was Right.
The possibility of a Black Swan on the horizon in no way helps Clegg out of the debacle. But how he must wish that such a swan would make a bold and salutary appearance.