NICK Clegg has never really seemed like a Liberal Democrat. That’s a big part of why his party voted him leader in 2007.
A decade earlier, New Labour had shown the other Westminster parties how to secure the vital middle Britain vote with a blueprint for leadership and campaigning created by Tony Blair. The Tories finally caught up in 2005, electing David Cameron on the understanding that he would modernise his party and bring back the electorate.
After the resignation of Charles Kennedy over a drink problem and the failed experiment of a Menzies Campbell stewardship, the Lib Dems wanted some of that slick, modern stuff. And so they chose Nick Clegg. He wasn’t unreliable like Kennedy, or inconveniently elderly like Campbell. He was a bit like Tony or Dave. They knew what they were doing, the Lib Dems. Or, at least, they thought they did.
On Friday, the Deputy Prime Minister gave a major speech on immigration. He spoke about abuse of the system. He called for some entering the UK to hand over cash deposits to ensure their departure.
Even the most loyal Lib Dem (and there are some left) must have shuddered. A Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister talking tough on immigration? How many knew they were buying into that when they voted for Clegg over Chris Huhne five years ago?
Before we really get into the misery of the modern Lib Dems, a word of sympathy for Clegg. A common voter complaint in the aftermath of the 2010 coalition deal between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was “I didn’t vote for this”.
Labour supporters, appalled that Tories were back thanks to a centre-left party, didn’t vote for it. Lib Dems, horrified at the prospect of ruling with the right, didn’t vote for it. Tories, fearful that their policies would be watered down by bleeding hearts, didn’t vote for it.
All these complainants were correct, though their views were solipsistic. The country did vote for it, or at least for some new form of government. Clegg was damned whether he cut a deal with the Tories or not. What was his alternative? To refuse to work on creating a government? To say that after decades of promising they were serious, ready to take responsibility, the Lib Dems weren’t up to handling the real world, with all its inconvenience and awkward General Election results? I’m with those who say he did what he had to do.
But it’s a tough business politics, and what some might still argue was a pragmatic, grown-up decision by Clegg has damaged the Lib Dems terribly. And damaged Clegg even more. Even his cabinet colleagues can’t be relied on for support. Hours before Clegg’s immigration speech, Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable attacked coalition plans to reduce net migration and called for an easier and more flexible immigration visa system. The timing was extraordinary. Wasn’t Cable’s intervention spectacularly unhelpful, claiming Lib Dem “values” on the issue while Clegg prepared to outline immigration controls that rang with a distinctly Tory tone?
Collective cabinet responsibility for policies might have always been at risk in a coalition between the Tories and Lib Dems, but who could have foreseen that splits would not develop between partners, but within one party? With Clegg seeming increasingly isolated from the party he leads, the danger is that colleagues are already planning for life without him.
Certainly, there are many who felt that the Lib Dems should have done more to cut a coalition deal with Labour in 2010. It seemed to them a more obvious, sympathetic partnership. It would be naive to think that the most left-leaning of Lib Dem MPs don’t still imagine a future deal with Labour.
Labour is open to the idea. Those round Ed Miliband are far from certain that the party can win an overall majority at the next General Election. The party is ready to deal with the Lib Dems on one condition: no Nick Clegg. Having been tainted by Tory association, Clegg is untouchable to Labour. Others? The ones who haven’t done all the old pals press conferences with Cameron? They’re fine.
Lib Dem activists have seen the electoral cost of coalition with the Tories. In 2011, the Scottish party lost 12 seats in the Holyrood election, leaving an all but powerless group of just five MSPs, none of whom hold mainland constituencies.
Those same activists have seen the party derided by natural supporters over a broken pledge not to raise tuition fees (and an excruciating video which followed, in which Clegg apologised). They’ve watched him fail to deliver the electoral reform which so many of them appear to fetishise. And at the same time, they’ve been beaten repeatedly with a stick marked Tory poodles. It’s been a wretched existence for the average party member.
I’m inclined to sympathise with those in the party who see a coalition deal with Labour as the quickest possible way to rehabilitate the Lib Dems with centre-left voters. Predictions of Lib Dem wipeout fail to take into account tactical voting in English marginals. The party will surely return to Westminster in some reasonable number.
With Labour steadfastly refusing to entertain the idea of a future deal with Clegg, and Lib Dem activists (and cabinet ministers) clamouring to draw dividing lines between themselves and their Tory coalition partners, the Deputy Prime Minister looks ever lonelier. It’s difficult to see where his value to the Lib Dems now lies.
This week a ComRes opinion poll gave Labour a nine-point lead over the Tories, with the Lib Dems pushed into fourth place behind Ukip. How does Clegg get the party out of that one? I don’t see how he does. Having taken the political gamble of governing with the Tories, Clegg’s only chance of survival is if Cameron again wins the largest number of seats without a majority.
With polls suggesting that’s unlikely, a change of leadership before the next General Election seems increasingly likely. A favourite name in the frame? Again and again, party president Tim Farron.
He’s slightly imperfect, slightly eccentric. It’s difficult to imagine him talking Tory-tough on immigration. Unlike Clegg, he seems like a real Liberal Democrat.