by David Talbot
Moments after the close of the first debate of the 2010 general election, Lib Dem officials were breathlessly rushing around the Granada studios in Manchester. They were hailing their leader’s performance as a potential “game-changer” in an election that had seemingly been thrown wide open. Nick Clegg, the political messiah, had arrived.
It was his best, and worst, moment.
Lauded to the skies as a return to Churchill, as another Obama, as the new kingmaker, he surely knew it must be as good as it gets. And how it turned out so. Burning effigies scarred the land, his party sunk to historic lows, lost deposits and pitiful results abounded. The great irony, however, is that come 2015 he will once again take centre stage.
Any fool can kick Nick Clegg. The Labour party, so often by far the most sanctimonious of the main political parties, has reduced this to a sorry art-form. When Clegg entered the coalition government with the Conservatives, the Labour party, always quick to feel betrayed, duly howled blue murder. It was treason of a high order. If there is one thing the Labour party does well it is hatred, and hate we did.
A more nuanced view would rightly ask what else was the leader of the Liberal Democrats meant to do? The only other option open to Clegg was to stand aloof, tolerating a minority Tory government and most likely precipitating another early election. The country, having just gone through the toils of a general election, would not have taken kindly to such short-sightedness. An alliance with Labour, who had just been decimated in the polls, would have been simply incredible. And were another election called, Labour, leader-less, penny-less, would have been destroyed. But for some in the party this is the utopia that could and should have happened until that bastard Clegg came along.
For Labour, Clegg has served the purpose of a lightening-rod of discontent; witness the recent talk of “decapitating” the Liberal Democrat leader from his Sheffield Hallam constituency. It is an odd strategy to pursue when, as reported on Uncut, the party cannot even target its rather overly-optimistic 106 seats for 2015 and is fully nineteen thousand votes behind Clegg in the constituency. But it is part of a wider strategy in that it is far more comforting for party to believe that it was Clegg’s personal desire, rather than cold parliamentary arithmetic, which killed off the “progressive majority” and blame him for all ills.
Amidst all this the man has conducted himself with the utmost dignity. He has held his ramshackle party together against the odds. The scale of his achievement in managing the Liberal Democrats, a fundamentally divided and rootless movement, during four years of brutal coalition government is of the highest order. He has shown party management above and beyond those offered by his adversaries. He has taken the most appalling abuse and since engaged in a masochism strategy to drain the swamp.
Far from being out of power for a generation, Clegg could have found the path to office for a generation. His greatest triumph was to prove that coalition, the only form of governance in which the Liberal Democrats can legitimately partake, is a workable form of British government. That prize is worth all the abuse alone, for it gives his party a reason for existing – and governing – in the long term.
Just as the coalition may be judged more thoughtfully by history than by the present, so history may see in Clegg’s conduct a degree of cunning. He rightly judged that in the immediate moments post the general election Cameron needed him more than he needed them, and as a result deftly extracted key cabinet positions and policy concessions. For sure, it has been rough for his party. The people are the ultimate arbiters and the polls do not do a disservice. But then any other strategy would have been far worse.
In 2010, many in the Granada studios thought Clegg was merely a kingmaker for day. But he has the opportunity to be a permanent fixture of this country’s government, the perennial kingmaker, forever determining who wears the crown. He may now longer be hailed as the “game-changer” but he has surely changed British politics.
David Talbot is a political consultant