THERE are many reasons why Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is wearing a rather chagrined look these days, not least because of the various alleged sexual predators and anguished female victims he is having to deal with.
But, like the true politician he is, Mr Clegg’s greatest cause for concern is the electability of his party. And while sex scandals are damaging – as then Tory leader John Major found in 1997 – the real issue the Lib Dem leader has to deal with is how to not look like an offshoot of the Tories.
The problem for Mr Clegg and the Lib Dems is that their current strategy of “differentiation” with the Conservatives is looking like a potential disaster and appears to be playing into David Cameron’s hands.
The crux of the matter is that the Tories are shamelessly “stealing” or rather getting the credit for Lib Dem policies. These include a recent pledge to increase the minimum wage to £7, raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, tackling payday lenders and putting a triple lock protection on the state pension. Mr Cameron even managed to steal the thunder of former Scottish secretary Michael Moore over key independence referendum announcements.
With the Tories winning the PR battle in getting credit for the policies, the Lib Dems somehow manage to distance themselves more from the popular bits of government by increasing the divide with the Tories. At the same time, the one thing the Lib Dems are remembered for in government is tripling tuition fees when their manifesto promised to abolish them. But the differentiation policy works for the Tories in a different way as well. Former Labour Welsh first minister Rhodri Morgan recently made it clear he disapproved of the fights between the two parties. He said he would not have allowed “the separate ownership of policies” and insisted it was “one government with two parties”. But the Tories are revelling in the Lib Dem attacks.
The calculation the Conservatives make is that they are defending or trying to win more marginal seats where their main opponent is Labour than any other party. While the Conservatives are terrified of losing votes to Ukip, they think their best hope of holding Labour back is for the centre-left vote to be split.
The Lib Dems lost an estimated four million votes by going into coalition with the Tories and while some of those stopped voting and a few went to parties such as the SNP, the bulk went to Labour. As one senior Tory government adviser noted to The Scotsman: “Every time Nick Clegg or one of the Lib Dems attacks us, that’s votes going away from Labour to the Lib Dems, which helps us. So we’re happy for the Lib Dems to continue attacking us.”