James Ruddick bids farewell to Nick Clegg

Let me be the first to wish Nick Clegg well in his new life outside British politics. Is this premature? Not at all.  Clegg will begin this new life – probably back in the corridors of Brussels – much sooner than he or anyone else realises.

Clegg’s political demise has already started. He may have secured an AV referendum for his party during negotiations with the Tories, but he secured nothing for the electorate except pain. On the only issue of importance facing the country – how and when to retrench – Clegg sold out. And for that alone, he is doomed.  He finds himself deputy prime minister in a government which has smashed the recovery with a single 40 minute speech.

And the stalled recovery – confirmed by the latest Markit and YouGov data – is only one feature in the pincer movement that is sealing Clegg’s fate. As our economic problems set in aspic, the electorate will start to feel the first wave of the cuts – the cuts that Clegg was hired to ameliorate; the cuts which he has unblinkingly sponsored. There will soon be vast numbers of casualties staring shell-shocked and limbless into the lens of the Sky News camera, all of them looking for Clegg’s phone number. Some aspect of the hacking and sawing will be felt by every family in Britain, especially the seven million who voted Lib Dem.

And then it will get really bad. There will come a point when a population already exhausted and cowed by years of gloom finally revolts. Anti-coalition protesters will organise – on Facebook and by email – in numbers that were previously unimaginable. We expected no less of the Tories, they will say. But we expected a great deal more of the Lib Dems. There will be rallies and marches, unrest, strikes. The whole fabric of society will feel like it is stretching and splintering. And the consequences for young Nicholas will be nothing short of nuclear. He will find that the new world he promised on that bright morning in the rose garden looks less Elysian and more Huxley: a nightmare landscape where betrayed citizens clamber through the rubble to throw rocks at him.

So exactly how and when will the end come? The answer to the “when” is soon after the budget of 2011: tax receipts still down, public services lacerated by another 20%, unemployment off the grid, the Tories rewarding their supporters with a feast at the expense of everyone else. Clegg will be on his belly, gasping for water. He will try to answer the recriminations by saying that coalition with the Tories was the only remedy to the muddle with which the electorate had left him.

But this is not how his detractors will remember it. And they will have the monopoly of the narrative. You could have sustained a minority Tory government from the opposition benches, his enemies will say – vetoing the more vicious aspects of its programme. That way you would have been the hero of the hour – nobly spurning the red meat of power in order to act as the conscience of the nation. Or, you could have formed a government with Labour and the Nationalists – Brown had resigned and Alex Salmond was pleading with you on television. The recovery would not have stalled and the cuts would have been more humane.

Which ever way he turns, Clegg will be vilified for selling out the most vulnerable in society for the purpose of self-aggrandisement. That charge may be somewhat unfair or it may be true. It is, at any rate, academic. But it will at least give Nick Clegg something to ponder over in his retirement.

The answer to the “how” is more interesting still. Clegg has shown himself to be impervious to criticism. So he will adopt a Thatcherite bravura to the fury around him. By doing so he will invite a systemic collapse in the infrastructure of his party. He will still be at his desk, clinking glasses with Cameron, when Charles Kennedy wanders in to tell him to skip the annual conference because there are no longer any Lib Dems to address. For the historic truth about the Lib Dems is that they split easier than overripe coconuts. They are waiting to split. And they always split when in coalition.  In 1916 the Liberals entered into a pact with the Tories – and the party split within eighteen months (Asquith’s Liberals versus Lloyd George’s National Liberals). They split again in 1932, once more under the strain of coalition government. These are ancient dates, to be sure, but an incontrovertible truth straddles the centuries: people of principle eventually become sickened by the compromises they make for power. And then they leave.

What is more, the Lib Dems were fundamentally split long before May 6th. And it is a bad-tempered split. In 2004 the right of the party published the Orange Book, a marvellous cure for insomnia in which 12 key figures on the free-market wing – including Clegg, Cable, Chris Huhne, David Laws and Susan Kramer – mouldered on about post-Thatcherite economics. In response, the left rallied to the Beveridge group, taking up arms for the more statist approaches of social liberalism. This chasm, scarcely remarked outside the Westminster village, has been playing on Clegg’s mind since he was confronted with the prospect of a Tory coalition. That is why he made Beveridge founder, Alistair Carmichael, deputy chief whip in the new government (as Callaghan had made the lefty rebel, Michael Foot, leader of the House in 1976).

It is a ploy meant to outmanoeuvre the troublemakers.  And it’s about as effective as a sieve in a tsunami. In reality, poor Carmichael will not be up to the job of arm-twisting his Beveridge followers into voting for things that both he and they violently oppose.  His resignation will be the point at which the Titanic hits the iceberg.

As we go into 2012, the fatal schism in the party will have properly opened up. Westminster will be shaking. MPs will be clinging to their desks. Lib Dem councils will be wiped out in local elections as voters pronounce on the great betrayal. Their share of the vote will be at 18% in their west country heartland and 8% everywhere else. Thousands of party activists will desert. Clegg’s MPs on both sides will be in turmoil as they see their seats flashing green and red. Constituency membership and finances will decay to the point where the party is no longer a national force.

Sensing extinction, the Beveridge group will decide to save themselves with a Damascene moment – renouncing the coalition and breaking away to form a new party. This will be called, probably, the Democratic Liberal Party, and it will be headed by Simon Hughes, with John Pugh and Jenny Willott as deputies. Others in its ranks will include Paul Burstow, champion of the disabled, Norman Baker, the left-wing transport minister, and David Heath, who used to work for Age Concern, and who is clinging to his Somerton seat by less than 2,000 votes.

The air will be full of talk of a pact between the Democratic Liberal Party and the Greens. Meanwhile, the right of the party will itself split, between those who are willing to go down with the ship – Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander, Vince Cable – and those who are planning to take over when the ministers lose their seats: notably David Laws and Ed Davey. The latter group will bring the government down and then hope to resuscitate what remains of the ruin. As for Nick Clegg, he will, I suspect, long since have taken to the hills. Or perhaps they will have to carry him out, still seated defiantly in the walnut corner chair that Cameron gave him on May 11th.

Do you think all of this is far fetched? Think again. When Nick Clegg became leader of his party he received a private memo from a surprising source: the former Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, long since banished into exile.  Now over 80 and devastated by Parkinson’s disease, Thorpe found the strength to send Clegg a doom-laden warning.  Don’t even think about a pact with the Tories if there is a hung parliament, Thorpe wrote.  You will wreck the party. Thorpe’s message had a unique resonance, given that he was the last Liberal leader to face more or less the same scenario that Clegg woke up to on May 7th – Thorpe held the balance of power in 1974 and went into talks with the Tories. The deal never happened because, in the words of Thorpe’s lieutenant, Richard Wainwright, “we felt it would end up splitting the party and destroying us.”

Still think that it’s a fantasy? The latest polling puts Lib Dem support at 13 per cent, worse than it was when the last third party split occurred, in 1989. (That split ended up producing new centre parties, as well – Paddy Ashdown’s Liberal Democrats, Michael Meadowcroft’s Liberal Party and David Owen’s Social Democrats.) Now imagine where the numbers will be in 18 months, after a year and a half of economic stagnation and the continuing decimation of public services.

When Nick Clegg comes to shave each morning he sees in the mirror a man who has made history. He is right – but for entirely the wrong reasons. Clegg won’t be remembered as the leader who ferried the Liberals back to power after 8o years in the wilderness (their stint in government will be a mere footnote, like the Lib-Lab pact of 1977). No, Clegg’s real place in history will be as the man whose manoeuvring of his party led ultimately to its destruction. He is not so much Lloyd George as Lloyd George after World War One.

So, farewell then, Nick.

James Ruddick is a writer and broadcaster.  He has presented Inside Out for the BBC, amongst other programmes.  In 2003 he was nominated for an Edgar Award for non-fiction.

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13 Responses to “James Ruddick bids farewell to Nick Clegg”

  1. doreen ogden says:

    Hope springs eternal ! Only problem you took the coalition past 2012 ! Is there any hope the country will bring the government down before then ? I wish ———

  2. Kevin says:

    Good Piece, However i think your wrong, the liberals will pull out once the AV is defeated and allow a minority goverment to continue on a vote by vote basis and start the campaign to repair themselfes ahead of the next general election, only to find themselfes in the same position again, except this time it will end up a lib – lab pact.

  3. It’s a nice thought, but too optimistic. You underestimate the essential ruthlessness of Lib Dem activists. These are people who made their way to power by inventing community campaigns about absolutely nothing or hijacking other campaigns and driving them into a ditch for party political gain. They fight dirtier campaigns than the BNP. They try to be all things to all people and quite often succeed.

    You don’t get to where they’ve got in local government without being able to see which way the wind is blowing. If 2011 is a terrible year for the Lib Dems, Clegg will be gone by Autumn. If it’s bad but not that bad and then continues to deteriorate, he’ll be eased out by Christmas.

    The Lib Dems, unlike us, have absolutely no problem with regicide.

  4. Henrik says:


    Folk didn’t vote for you because:

    a. They hated you
    b. They didn’t trust you

    The comrades need to grip this and develop a narrative that is compelling and attractive before they get all jiggy with the Lib Dems, especially at the local level – it’s like the old saying, if you fight a pig, you both get dirty but the pig likes it.

    There isn’t a deus ex machina waiting to return you to power. Sort yourselves out first.

  5. Pete B says:

    Well, I think and hope you’re right James, but I also think you’re missing an important dimension.

    As ECB (above) says the LibDems are rooted in local politics and are better than Labour or Cons at picking up on street-level concerns and articulating them. Also I believe a lot of their elected reps and party activists do have ideals and integrity and will act accordingly (lets not give cynicism too much respect). When the LibDem grass-roots activists start to turn against the coalition their MPs can’t ignore them for long. I think that’s where the split will start, not in the Westminster Village, and this kind of thing (sorry, don’t know if we can do tags, so you’re getting the full link) http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/aug/06/council-house-tenants-kensington-chelsea is exactly what *will* turn the grass-roots.

    Gobby Cameron will have to demonstrate his famous fast footwork straight away I think, or this will come to be seen as the first significant crack.



  6. Phil Ruse says:

    …and there I was thinking that people were going to lose their jobs because of spending that always exceeded income, even during the good years, over many years of Labour. But as one commentator has already said you only need to defeat the referendum next year to wreak things – so don’t despair.

  7. Anon says:

    I have a lot of Lib Dem friends who have been acting very strange in recent weeks.

    Firstly, the rhetoric of hatred towards the Labour Party and Labour Party activists is quite hard to deal with especially when it comes from people I thought were friends.

    Secondly, the shameless defence of Tory policies that they wouldn’t have dreamt of defending before the election.

    Thirdly, a blind sanctimoniousness towards themselves – as if they are completely beyond any reproach.

    Is anyone else having the same experience?

  8. Pete says:

    > …and there I was thinking that people were going to lose their jobs because of spending that always exceeded income, even during the good years, over many years of Labour.

    Well, you couldn’t be more wrong Phil.

    When Labour took over from the Cons in 1997, the National Debt was just under 42% of GDP. In 1998 it fell nearly 2%, 1999 t fell over 2%, 2000 over 2% again – and again, and again … In fact throughout the whole of the Labour years, until the worldwide banking crisis in 2008, the Credit Crunch and the implosion of the private sector (not just in the UK, but in all Western economies) National Debt was never again as high as it was when Labour took office. And when you think of all we as a country invested over that period – in restoring the NHS, rebuilding schools, taking hundreds of thousands of pensioners out of poverty, ditto children – keeping the National Debt below the level they inherited from the Conservatives was a fantastic achievement.

    The comments about unemployment I don’t understand frankly. It was the Conservatives who drove unemployment up to 3 and 4 million, not Labour. Even through the worst of the baning crisis and Credit Crunch Labour never allowed unemployment to reach those figures.

    Here’s a link to the National Debt/GNP figures: http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_national_debt_chart.html – please check it out and come back and let us know what you think. I’m saying that it’s the Conservatives who are the party of high National Debt, not Labour and also that the Conservatives are the party of high unemployment, not LAabour



  9. Suzy says:

    Brilliantly written. It makes for scary reading though. I work in the social care sector and am alarmed by some of the rapid changes the Govt are making – without consultantion, which will inevitably lead to disastrous consequences. Clegg as you say could have been the hero, but human greed, once again, won over. Please write more of these Mr Ruddick. The country needs warning of doom ahead …

  10. Just to clarify, Pete B, I don’t think Lib Dems in local government are rooted in their communities or that they have ideals and integrity. I could give you chapter and verse as to why I believe the opposite is true. However, I think they’re very good at giving the impression that they’re rooted in their communities.

    I think their inherent weaseliness makes them that much more likely to detect weakness on Clegg’s part and tear him apart if he proves to be an anchor to their polling numbers. That said, Lib Dems do control my local council and parliamentary constituency, so local rivalry may be making me even more biased than I would normally be.

  11. Pete says:


    Well, I guess the truth is that councillors, officers and envelope-stuffers of all parties are individuals and all act from a mix of motives. We have a couple of Liberal councillors in Swindon who seemto be hard-working and caring for their communities and showing long-term commitment. We’re all different.

    However, I also think that we in the Labour and Co-Op parties are not doing enough to defend our record in office or attack the coalition. The right’s Big Lie is that the deficit was caused by Labour spending recklessly and creating a bloated public sector (see Phil’s post and my reply above). The deficit was actually caused by greedy incompetent private sector bankers who added nothing of value to Britain: that is a matter of record and we should be doing all we can to counter the lie – in letters to our local papers, in posts like this (but better on Conservative and Liberal sites) in conversation …

    So I may not agree 100% with your reasoning Edward – but I’m right behind you in sticking it to ’em every chance we get.



  12. When Nick Clegg claimed he was in politics to fight for the poor and downtrodden, and then revealed he didn’t have a clue what the state pension was, this writer’s suspicion that he is a professional politician using the Liberal party as a stepping stone to higher office was confirmed , and now he is using the Tory Party as a stepping stone.

    The world is Clegg’s oyster, and he could become leader of the Tories or accept an international job, but one thing is for sure, he wont stick around with the LipDems.http://torypartyflushed.blogspot.com/

  13. deb says:

    ….just some musings from a mother of a disabled child.. not so long ago, i thought to myself..”well, were really fortunate to live in the UK, weve got a good support system, education, NHS health care, a decent roof over our heads”. (should anyone ever need to access any of these services.).. and then what happens? ho ho, the vote was divided and we ended up with Cleggeron, Thatchers finest product! im a worn out mum aged 48, whose family works hard and pays their taxes and wondering what else is going to be CUT? UNBELIEVABLE!

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