Sunday, 30 September 2012

The conference of the living dead

Last week the Liberal Democrats toddled off to Brighton to hold their annual conference and be told by leader Nick Clegg that after two years in government theirs is now a grown up party. One that has made a mature choice between ‘protest and power’ and despite the ‘pain’ involved is sticking by the coalition.

Mr Clegg said of the perception of his party before the last election ‘the received wisdom was that we wouldn’t be capable of making the transition from opposition to government;’ that they were ‘a party of protest, not power.’ Two years on, he asserted, the critics have been proved wrong, the once flaky Lib Dems have had ‘our mettle tested and we haven’t been found wanting.’

He used his thirty seven minute speech to trail policy announcements designed to show what the Lib Dems had brought to the coalition, such as a pledge to ensure the top rate of tax didn’t drop below 45% and an extra £500 in funding for England’s 110,000 worst performing eleven year olds to help them make the transition from primary to senior school. There was also a return for that old favourite the ‘mansion tax’ and the general message was that the Lib Dems had brought some much needed humanity to the Tory quest to conquer the deficit in a single parliament.

Mr Clegg said he was ‘proud’ of how his party had remained ‘focused, determined and disciplined’ as it went about this task, admitting that it ‘hasn’t always been easy and when we’ve made mistakes we’ve put our hands up.’ A cynic might say that they have indeed, usually in order to surrender to the wishes of their Tory partners.

Government had, he said, changed his party and there could be no turning back to the more comforting days of eternal opposition. As he put it ‘the past is gone and it ain’t coming back. If voters want a party of opposition, a ‘stop the world I want to get off party, they’ve got plenty to choose from; but we’re not one of them.’ I’m not all that sure the old Lib Dems did want to ‘stop the world’ and get off; they just wanted to make it a little bit fairer.

Anyway the past is just so much water under the bridge and there is a ‘better, more meaningful’ future waiting for the Liberal Democrats if only they can hold their nerve, one where they aren’t just the ‘third party’, but ‘one of three parties of government’; whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Again a cynic might interpret this as a vague promise of an afterlife rather than a vision for the future, but the atmosphere inside the conference hall was probably different. Like being high in the mountains there is less oxygen and so the inhabitants are prone to delusions. Just for a moment even the most hardened of party hacks must have thought things were going to be different.

Only for a moment though, then it will have been back to reality with an almighty splat. The Liberal Democrats are polling below ten percent and have further implicated themselves in the demolition of the welfare system thanks to the announcement made by their leader that he backs the removal of free TV licences and bus passes from ‘wealthy’ pensioners. I don’t know which shocks me more, the flagrant disrespect of the elderly implied by the announcement or the failure of a, so called, liberal to understand that the whole point of a welfare system is that it benefits everyone.

There is something a little forlorn about Nick Clegg these days, he has about him the look of a man who has won second prize in the political raffle only to find out the game wasn’t worth the candle after all. Things aren’t made any better by the fact that he’s been obliged to bring Paddy, now Lord, Ashdown back to oversee the party’s election strategy for 2015, the poor booby might even have meant it when he said ‘I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have by my side.’ Maybe so, but it is hard to think of any party leader who wouldn’t be fatally undermined by bringing back a more popular predecessor in such a high profile role.

Whatever ‘vision’ he was trying to sell up there on the platform all most people could think about was that apology, the one that was even more cringe worthy than the countless internet parodies it inspired. It is hard not to read it as the work of a politician who isn’t so much sorry that he broke a promise as that we’ve all found out how little substance there is behind his style.

Nick Clegg will go down in political history as the man who squandered the biggest opportunity his party has had in a century to bring about real change. He allowed the cynicism of the NO campaign to win during the AV referendum because he childishly refused to share a platform with Ed Milliband, fumbled the ball over Lords reform and, yes, made a fatal miscalculation when he made a pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees that he knew he couldn’t keep.

If this week represented the big chance for the Liberal Democrats to re-invent themselves and stop the slide towards electoral oblivion, then I’m afraid the curse of Clegg has struck again. The whole thing played out in an atmosphere of weary resignation, the party faithful have lost faith in their leader, but haven’t the energy to get rid of him.

Nick Clegg will stumble on until the next election taking, no doubt, countless pratfalls along the way. Afterwards it might be a different story, being forced to resign early in the life of the coalition turns out to have been the best career move David Laws ever made. He’s dodged the compromises made by his rivals and now fully rehabilitated is back and circling the leadership like a hungry shark.

Whatever ‘vision’ he wanted observers to come away from his speech with on Wednesday the only one Nick Clegg has planted in my mind is the, entirely imagined, one of him walking alone along the Brighton seafront at dusk as a mournful saxophone wails; yesterday’s man trudging head down to nowhere as it starts to rain.

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