Euan McColm: We no longer agree with Nick

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Picture: PA
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Picture: PA
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CAN it really be less than three years since we all agreed with Nick?

Across a trio of election debates against Gordon Brown and David Cameron before the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrat leader became a household name, a political pin-up of sorts.

Nick Clegg’s gimmick was common sense: while Cameron and Brown slugged it out, he’d offer “I’m on your side” nuggets to the audience.

Before long, his opponents were nodding approvingly. “I agree with Nick,” they said, again and again. Those four words made headlines, then ended up on T-shirts.

In the end, though, we didn’t agree with Clegg quite so much as it seemed, and the Lib Dems managed a meagre 1 per cent increase in their vote while losing five MPs.

As the Lib Dems Spring Conference comes to a close today in Brighton, there’s not much agreement with Clegg.

Fewer than a third of people who helped the party secure 23 per cent of the popular vote in 2010 plan to support the Lib Dems at the next general election. Not much surprise there. The party’s fate seemed sealed the very moment the announcement came that Clegg had taken his party into coalition with Cameron’s Conservatives. “I didn’t vote for this,” was a common refrain from those who’d agreed with Clegg.

In 2011, Scottish Lib Dems paid a high price for Clegg’s coalition with the Tories, losing 12 MSPs to become a scarcely relevant group of five.

While signing up to the coalition might have been problematic, at least it was defendable. Clegg’s explanation from day one – that the general election result demanded serious politicians work together to create a stable government – is difficult to fault.

With a country demanding certainty after an inconclusive result, Clegg was in damned if he did, damned if he didn’t territory.

What’s not been defendable is the party’s response to a string of allegations of sexual harassment made against its former chief executive Lord Rennard.

Clegg’s handling of this matter, changing his position carefully over who knew what and when as the story developed, reminded us that despite the coalition backlash he still had credibility to lose. And he’s done exactly that.

The Lib Dems are in a miserable state, but some optimists remain in the party. Lib Dem strategists reckon they can hold on to seats where the Tories are the main challengers. Lib Dem protests over the coalition deal in those marginals would benefit nobody more than those hated partners.

Others in the party make a strong case for the Lib Dems concentrating their efforts on the sort of local campaigning for which they have an excellent reputation.

“A ground battle, not an air war,” is how one senior figure puts it. “We’re great at local campaigning. It’s one of our strengths. We should worry less about the big TV debates next time round and concentrate on local campaigns.

“We’ve got nothing to win by going into debates, fighting with people we’re likely going to have to deal with again and sticking Nick up front. He’s not got the appeal he had, obviously.”

Obviously. So maybe the best bet really is to push him to the background when the next general election campaign begins.

In 2010, the mantra was “I agree with Nick.” In 2015, it might just be “I don’t really know Nick.”