by John Woodcock
My twitter feed may not be quite as representative as an IPSOS-MORI poll, but it was still striking to witness the outpouring of abuse when Nick Clegg briefly honed into view at the champions league final on Saturday night.
The excellent John Park MSP summed it up: “Nick Clegg was on our telly and the whole pub burst into laughter: #nowayback”.
It is important to guard against seeing the world purely through the Labour rose-tinted spectacles of your friends and supporters, but John may well be right.
The X-Factor-style rise and fall of the Liberal Democrat leader has been much remarked already. But the hapless man has managed to intensify people’s annoyance at his broken promises still further by maintaining a peculiarly grating tone of injured sanctimony (hat tip, Adrian McMenamin’s twitter) through his transition from chief critic of the “broken politics of Westminster” to epitome of said broken politics.
It is possible that he will spring back again, but it seems increasingly unlikely.
Now, I could happily devote the rest of this column to Clegg-bashing and feel a lot better for it. And, admit it, you have clicked on this link in the hope that it will provide fuel for one of the Winston Smith-inspired two minute hate sessions in which you have been indulging for the past year.
All very well. But the important thing to consider, and consider now, is where the fall of Nick Clegg is likely to leave us going into the next election.
It is hard to see the deputy prime minister and his most robustly pro-coalition Liberal Democrat ministers pulling away from the alliance with the Conservatives which has consumed them over the past year.
Granted, they could manufacture some whopping great split, such as over the renewal of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. On that front, it was interesting to note that the Lib Dems apparently insisted that their review of alternatives to the current submarine-launched ballistic missile system should last a full 18 months – kicking it into the long grass and potentially providing a convenient break point closer to the end of the parliament.
But before that decision point were reached, they would surely realise how badly the public would react to them letting their response to the ultimate global security issue be driven by the need to massage internal party politics. So with no easy way out for the party as a whole, we must be alive to the possibility of a schism within the Lib Dems. Its members are understandably hostile to outsiders who suggest change, but it cannot be outside the realms of possibility that a party, which has of course only existed in its current form for less than three decades, could see a split between those ministers who cannot credibly abandon the arrangement they have chosen and those who have maintained a greater degree of separation from their Conservative partners.
There has already been a great deal of focus on whether more Liberal Democrat elected representatives and activists could co-operate with Labour on particular issues. I very much hope they do, as I hope we can respond to the challenge of opening up to those who, for whatever reason, have turned away from Labour in the past.
But we must not make the mistake of thinking that a fracturing of the Liberals and subsequent strengthening of the progressive alliance around the Labour party necessarily will mean we cruise to victory at the next election.
Imagine for a moment that a group of Liberal Democrat MPs and a majority of their activists do decide that at some point before the election that they can no longer maintain their place alongside the Tories. A rump around Clegg would be left – potentially prompting a revival of the “coupon” agreement seen under David Lloyd George, in which Liberals remaining loyal to the coalition government were not challenged by Conservative candidates.
We would rightly claim that such a seismic event endorsed Labour’s central argument that the current administration is not governing in the best interests of the British people. But David Cameron would claim to be strengthened too. After all, he would be going into the next election effectively defending more seats than he had started out with.
And Cameron would seek to make the central dividing line at that election between those he claimed were willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions in the national interest, and those not up for the fight. That argument would be entirely bogus, but it could be seductive and we should prepare for it.
John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness and a shadow transport minister.