Saturday, 21 August 2010

It’s the end of the line for nice guy Nick.

If they hadn’t entered into a coalition government with the Conservative Party back in May people would not be taking ‘any notice’ of the Liberal Democrats, says party leader Nick Clegg in a BBC interview due to be broadcast this weekend.

His comments come as the Lib Dems see their support slump from 27% at the time of the general election, back then it seemed like we all agreed with Nick, to 14% now; a sharp contrast to Labour who lost the election but have since seen a ‘surge’ in support, despite the deadly dull race for the party leadership. Needless to say there are more than a few Liberal Democrat back benchers looking at the polls and starting to worry.

Their leader though remains determinedly bullish airily telling the BBC that it is ‘one of the oldest rules in politics that parties in government see a dip in their popularity. Once upon a time a lot of otherwise sensible people thought that the charming Mr Clegg represented a new kind of politics; how wrong they were.

When he says that it would be highly unlikely for his party to be ‘able to defy the rules of gravity at a time when we are taking very difficult decisions of deficit reduction’ he is speaking with the voice of the old politics and setting the teeth of most of his listeners painfully on edge. It is a truism that being in government inevitably means being unpopular, but it does not necessarily follow that it also requires a fire sale of long held principles of the sort undertaken by the Lib Dems over the past hundred days.

In his party’s defence Clegg, who this week stood in as David Cameron went away on holiday, cites the promised referendum on voting reform and says that entering a coalition with Labour would have caused the party an even more serious identity crisis than the one Simon Hughes diagnosed it as suffering from this week. Neither of these fig leaves do much to preserve the modesty of a party that has gained power but very much lost its way in the process.

The referendum on voting reform, if it isn’t torpedoed by the Tory back benches, will present voters with a choice between keeping the system they know or embracing the confusing alternative vote system, meaning the status quo has a better than average chance of winning the day, something David Cameron understood from the start but which seems to have totally eluded nice guy Nick.

As for the possibility of forming a coalition with Labour at some unspecified date in the future, the chances of that happening were shot down by Ed Milliband who ruled the idea out were Clegg to still be party leader at the next election. He also wrote to him to attack Clegg’s policy on tax avoidance following a report in the Financial Times this week that the government planned to take a ‘softer’ line on the issue, even though the Liberal Democrats pledged to get tough with tax cheats during the election.

In truth Nick Clegg has little to fear from Ed Milliband or Labour in general, not least because it will be David rather than Ed who wins the party leadership. Once that happens the ‘surge’ in support for the party will rapidly dissipate, partly due to the grinding drudgery of opposition politics, but mostly because the election of David Milliband, who this week issued a list of daft instructions to activists planning to hold events supporting his campaign, as party leader will prompt the media to drown his tenure in ridicule.

What should concern Nick Clegg is the ‘identity crisis’ identified by Simon Hughes within his own party. The surge in popularity he experienced during the election was based on a belief that he represented a new and more progressive style of politics, in power though he has suffered from a failure of courage and a surfeit of naivety.

For all that he resembles a sit com clergyman the determinedly other worldly Simon Hughes is a good egg and as such has a keen nose for smelling out when one of the others in the basket is rotten. My guess would be that the egg in question has Nick Clegg’s face painted on it.