Dani Garavelli: Who still agrees with Nick?
AS the ‘petulant’ Deputy Prime Minister retaliates after the Tories block Lords reform, Dani Garavelli asks if he’s a spent force
Once, not so very long ago, Nick Clegg held all the cards. For a fleeting moment, in the wake of the general election, when the Tories were left without a working majority and the cross-party mantra was “I agree with Nick”, he was able to dictate the terms of the political game. Yet last week – after he responded to the Tories’ dropping of the Lords reform Bill by performing a U-turn on plans to redraw parliamentary constituency boundaries – many were portraying him as a busted flush.
“How immature,” his critics fulminated as he pledged to instruct Liberal Democrat MPs to vote against the plans as a quid pro quo for David Cameron giving up on attempts to get his rebel back-benchers to back Clegg’s plans for a mostly elected second chamber.
With tensions in the coalition at an all-time high and even former Liberal leader David Steel branding him “petulant”, the Deputy Prime Minister looks increasingly like a spent force.
Since the heady days of the rose garden, when the relationship between Clegg and David Cameron was so cosy it sparked rumours of a “bromance”, the man who led a Liberal party into government for the first time in 80 years has been on a seemingly relentless downward trajectory. A mere seven months after the Coalition deal seemed to usher in a new era of politics, his decision to renege on his pre-election promise to oppose a rise in tuition fees saw him dubbed “the most hated man in Britain”, his effigy burned on the street by student protesters.
Since then, he has appeared to have the opposite of the Midas touch; as the attempt to bring in AV was comprehensively rejected, a succession of by-elections brought heavy Lib Dem defeats and the council elections saw the loss of scores of Lib Dem councils, he has increasingly been depicted as a joke figure, a whinger and an accidental tourist in the cut and thrust world of party politics.
Earlier this year, a poll of Lib Dem Party members found around a third (34 per cent) thought he should be replaced as party leader before the next general election, with Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome website, suggesting that while Clegg should remain Deputy Prime Minister (to ensure stability) Vince Cable should take over as party leader in 2014. Others have suggested Tim Farron as more likely to appeal to left-leaning Lib Dems alienated by the alliance with the Tories.
Clegg’s decision, last week, to effectively sabotage the boundary changes (which could give the Tories anything between 12 and 20 extra seats in the 2015 election) brought a fresh onslaught of criticism.
Moving away from the image of the coalition as a marriage to one of a business agreement, he said he believed voters would understand that when one part of a contract was breached, the rest of it needed to be renegotiated.
But the alleged cynicism of his response (he didn’t seek to portray the U-turn on boundary changes as based on principle) and his insistence the two were linked (when the boundary changes were in fact tied to the AV referendum) brought accusations of “sophistry” and led many commentators to accuse him of being petty and vengeful.
Furthermore, his dismissal of limited House of Lords reform – a Lords reform-lite, if you will – as “a wheeze to dignify an illegitimate house” has been seen as cutting off his nose to spite his face. “It appears to be sending the message that if I can’t get my own way I won’t do anything. That is not credible and makes you look petulant,” Steel has said.
Certainly, the disagreement between Cameron and Clegg has put the coalition under pressure. With Cameron insisting he will press ahead with the boundary changes, speculation has mounted that it might be dissolved with the Tories continuing to rule under a “confidence and supply arrangement” (whereby the Lib Dems leave the government but agree to support budgetary measures and not to bring down the minority administration).
Senior Lib Dems, including Brian Paddick, have also called for Clegg to separate himself from David Cameron in order to head off an electoral wipe-out.
Since neither party stands to gain from an early election, it seems likely the parties will – however reluctantly – stay hitched for the foreseeable future. Indeed, Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander are currently drawing up Coalition 2.0, a strategy document for the remainder of the government’s term.
But what have the latest developments done for Clegg’s long-term political prospects? There are those who argue that, given House of Lords reform was central to the Coalition agreement, he had little choice but to take a stand.
“He needed to do this before the party conference because if he had just rolled over and allowed the failure of Lords reform to go through, his obituaries would have been written internally, not just by external commentators,” one senior Lib Dem told Scotland on Sunday.
But even if – counterintuitively – his tit-for-tat politicking strengthens his position with party members, how will it play with an electorate more concerned with the state of the economy than with overhauling the constitution? Will it be seen as evidence he is willing to play hardball or simply reinforce his image as a man at the end of his tether?
The dramatic rise – and inexorable fall – of Nick Clegg is one of the most interesting political stories of our time. It took one slick appearance on a televised pre-election debate to transform him from a fringe politician to a serious contender and to propel his party into government.
But a complex blend of bad timing, flawed personality and political misjudgment has reversed the process, stripping him of his youthful charm and causing the Lib Dem party to haemorrhage supporters (the latest figures show membership has dropped by 17 per cent since December 2009).
To a certain extent, Clegg has been a victim of circumstance. Coming into power at the height of a global recession, the coalition was always going to have to make unpopular decisions, with the Lib Dems bearing the brunt of blame for cuts in front-line services.
When the party failed to deliver on tuition fees, AV and Europe, Lib Dem voters expressed their disappointment at the ballot box, with the number of Lib Dem councillors dropping to below 3,000 for the first time in its history after local authority elections in March. The party was also humiliated in the parliamentary by-election in Barnsley where they slumped to sixth place, even behind the BNP.
But even Lib Dem insiders concede Clegg’s constant world weariness has compounded rather than alleviated his political problems; once a breath of fresh air, he quickly took on the demeanour of a man saddled with too much responsibility. His complaints about his long working hours (although he always seemed to be home for the school run) were derided as self-pitying, while even his jocular attempts at self-deprecation could be seen as consolidating the electorate’s perception of the party as an irrelevance.
“Nick Clegg commenting at Leveson that he was sitting at the ‘children’s end’ of Murdoch’s table, or his recent description of being in government as akin to being lobotomised, may raise a few chuckles, but they simply give ammunition to those who wish to portray us as a party which is not worth taking seriously,” party worker Paul Haydon recently complained on the Liberal Democrat Voice website.
The problem with Clegg, other sources say, is that – like Cameron – he has failed to endear himself to the party grass roots. Partly, this may be due to his being on the right of the Lib Dems. Partly it is due to his very professionalism. “He is very telegenic, certainly. But he is not perceived by the party as one of them. It’s a bit like Blair. There’s no strong emotional attachment between him and the party,” says one insider.
Against this background of failure and diminishing support, the reform of the House of Lords took on an almost disproportionate importance to Clegg. It represented – insiders say – his last chance to leave a legacy. Some party members, including Christine Jardine, point to the lowering of the tax threshold, the linking of pensions to inflation and the introduction of the pupil premium as distinctive Lib Dem contributions.
Yet these pale in comparison to the potential democratisation of a centuries-old institution, an achievement which would have secured him an enduring place in the party’s history.
Plans to change the parliamentary constituency boundaries – reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 – were equally important to the Tories, who have long felt penalised by the fact that urban constituencies (which are more likely to be Labour) have fewer voters than rural constituencies (which are more likely to be Conservative).
They believe the inequalities in constituency sizes need to be ironed out before the 2015 election if they are to have any chance of securing a majority the next time round.
But when 91 Tory backbenchers refused to back the Lib Dems’ Lords Reform Bill, and Cameron failed to reverse the revolt, forcing him to abandon it, the Deputy Prime Minister was left with little option than to withdraw support for the boundary changes.
The decision infuriated leading Tories who say there is a clear distinction between being unable to get back-benchers to toe the party line and actively encouraging them to oppose the government’s policy.
Within his own party, the response has been more positive. Lord Steel may be angry, but he has a specific agenda – his own private members’ bill on which he proposes evolutionary changes to the second chamber. Others have praised the way the Lib Dem leader has finally flexed his muscles. “As far as the party is concerned, this will have reflected very well on Nick Clegg,” says Jardine. “The government has not upheld its part of the bargain – there has to be a balancing of that.”
The decision to oppose boundary reform was not just necessary internally, but also served a strategic purpose, insists another senior Lib Dem source. “Stopping the boundary reform is good news for Labour and not good news for the Tories,” he said. “Consequently, it could help Labour edge out the Conservatives at the next general election, potentially putting the Lib Dems in with a shout of a more politically acceptable coalition with Ed Miliband.”
How last week will play with the wider electorate is less clear. There are those, even within the Lib Dems, who believe the party’s preoccupation with constitutional reform at a time when the Eurozone is in meltdown makes it seem out of touch and eccentric.
While Clegg’s obvious investment in the reform of the Lords may have reinforced that view, the fact that it has now been abandoned leaves him clear to concentrate on the economy – the coalition’s supposed raison d’être.
As Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander work on Coalition 2.0, Clegg’s best hope of reversing public opinion is that possibility that the legislative gap left by the dropping of the bill is filled with something that reflects Lib Dem ideals – further banking reforms, social care or ways to help young people find jobs, for example.
But others within the party believe – last week’s performance notwithstanding – Clegg is now so damaged, he is beyond redemption. “Barring some sort of incredible turnaround in his public image, the question is whether he goes before the election or after it,” says one party insider.
Most seem to come down in favour of waiting until after the election, their argument being the party is going to get a kicking whoever is leading them. That having been administered, a new leader could be put in place who would rebuild the party from the shattered remains. As to who would take on role, the jury is still out. Farron is being talked about, as is Jo Swinson, MP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden. Others believe if Charles Kennedy was able to demonstrate he had put his alcohol problems behind him, he would win a landslide victory in any leadership election.
Until then, it seems, Clegg will just have to soldier on, playing the unenviable hand he’s been left with as best he can.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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