A reckoning for the second rate: the Lib Dems are simply not qualified to govern

by Dan Hodges

In his classic work Fever Pitch, the book that finally enabled middle class supporters to emerge from the football closet, Nick Hornby devotes a whole chapter to a single player, Gus Caesar.

Caesar’s place in literary history was secured in the eighty third minute of the 1988 League Cup final between Arsenal and Luton. With his side 2-1 up, the England under-21 defender chased down an innocuous ball in his own penalty area. Then something strange happened.

Some say he was distracted by a Luton striker who had moved goal side of him. Others that his studs became caught in the Wembley turf. Whatever the reason, with the option of sliding a pass to a colleague, or launching the ball to safety, he chose to do neither. Gus Caesar simply fell over. A melée ensued, in which Luton scrambled an equaliser. They went on to snatch a late winner and raise the trophy. Caesar was swiftly transferred, never playing in the top flight of football again.

Hornby’s chapter doesn’t linger on this particular incident per se, but instead uses it to investigate the frailties of success, and by extension life. He points out that until that moment, Caesar’s career had been one of virtually unparalleled achievement. By far the best player among his contemporaries at school, he secured a regular place not just in any team, but one of the leading clubs in the premier division of English football. He graced Wembley, the sacred arena. And then, in an instant, it was over.

Last week, Vince Cable became the Gus Caesar of British politics. As an economist, he was a senior government advisor, before being poached by corporate titan Royal Dutch Shell. He was elected to Parliament, an ambition coveted by many but realised by few. Perceived to be one of his party’s key assets by the time of the 2010 election, he was granted that rarest of accolades: his picture on the side of the battlebus.

When government came, Vince became a secretary of state. A prince. A panjandrum. The very department he once advised now under his control. Then the pinnacle. An appearance on Strictly Come Dancing. Not just recognition, but genuine celebrity. The opportunity to glide serenely into a nation’s heart.

And in the flutter of an eyelash, the whirr of a tape recorder, it was gone. The fall brutally public and absolute.  The preening. The posturing. The giggling. When Vince Cable tries to recall a lifetime of public service, it’s those giggles that will retain their clarity.

But what’s surprising about “Cablegate” is people’s surprise. Yes, the manner of his downfall may be unusual. Few politicians would have been alert to the Telegraph’s “surgery sting”.

But Cable’s fall was inevitable. Just as the fall of his colleagues is inevitable, the fall of his leader is inevitable, the fall of his party is inevitable.

As soon as they agreed to enter formal coalition government, their fate was sealed. The Liberal Democrats are like the coyote in the road runner cartoon. They have run off the end of the cliff, and they are still running. Yet at some point over the next four and a half years they will be forced to pause and look downwards. And when they do, they are finished.

It’s not just political gravity that will seize them, though the electoral hole they have dug for themselves is so large that not even a Chilean miner could extricate himself. The fact is that the Liberal Democrats are simply not qualified to govern.

This is a group of politicians who have no experience of opposition, never mind great offices of state. What’s worse, they have never even had any realistic expectation of either. Yes, they may have dreamt of it. But they have never seriously planned or prepared for it, either politically or psychologically.

Can you imagine Vince Cable’s predecessor, Peter Mandelson, bragging to a couple of visitors to his Hartlepool surgery about divisions at the heart of the cabinet? It would never occur to him. Because he wouldn’t have the slightest interest in attempting to impress them. Get a tape recorder alongside him and his counterparts at the G20 and you may get something juicy. The Mandelsons operate at one level, the Cable’s another. Mandelson became attuned to pitching to global leaders. Cable is still pitching to the single mums of Twickenham.

If that sounds elitist, it is. Cable was trying to take on the big players. Murdoch. News international. That is serious stuff. You don’t send a boy to do a man’s job. And on the evidence of last week, you certainly don’t send a Liberal Democrat.

Watching the Tory-Lib Dem government’s end of year press conference, the contrast between Clegg and Cameron was stark. Whatever you think of Cameron, he is an A list politician. Clegg is not, and it showed. There is an almost physical separation between the serious statesman and the bog standard political journeyman. Clegg is the latter.

Handed the gift of the televised debates, and “Cleggmania”, he blew it by prematurely declaring that he was leaning towards the Tories. Given the opportunity presented by a hung parliament, he blew it again by announcing that he was starting negotiations with Cameron, instead of playing off both parties in an attempt to maximize his leverage. On entering coalition, he blew it a third time by failing to insist on his own portfolio, leaving him no defined role other than as monkey to Cameron’s organ grinder.

But why did anyone expect anything else? The last two senior Parliamentarians who attempted to lead Britain’s third party were Ming Campbell and Charlie Kennedy. The experience broke both of them.

One senior Liberal Democrat, Norman Baker, a government minister, is literally a conspiracy theorist, who believes that David Kelly was murdered. Another minister, Lynne Featherstone, once tabled questions to the government about a non-existent date rape drug called Progesterex. When she was informed that it didn’t exist, she attacked ministers for not trying to track down the hoaxers who had duped her. A Lib Dem parliamentary researcher was recently in jail on suspicion of espionage, after her sponsoring MP, Mike Hancock, innocently tabled questions including, “To ask if the secretary of state for defence will publish a full historical inventory of the UK’s nuclear arsenal”.

Morally, and despite their tuition fee betrayal, the Liberal Democrats are no worse than politicians in either of the major parties. They are not political outlaws. But they are completely out of their depth.

Nick Clegg doubtless wants the best for his country. So, in their own misguided way, do his colleagues. But they are not of sufficient calibre to withstand the rigors of office, nor hold their own against Conservative politicians who regard leadership as a birthright. Even if they managed to escape from the boot, they wouldn’t have the first clue how to start the ignition or put the car into gear.

Government is unforgiving. Many of the brightest and the best have found the step up to the  political premier league beyond them. Few Liberal Democrats can rank themselves amongst the brightest. Fewer still amongst the best.

Nick Clegg is back peddling. The ball is arcing towards him. Beneath his feet, the grass is slowly giving way.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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5 Responses to “A reckoning for the second rate: the Lib Dems are simply not qualified to govern”

  1. Josh White says:

    Dan, this is an deeply patronising article written by someone who seems to think that the last Labour government was run by professionals. Where do I start to point out the follies of that government and its ministers? A cruel and unnecessary war costing the lives of many thousands of individuals, on which many billions of borrowed pounds were spent and for which we will be liable for many years hence while education and welfare budgets must necessarily be cut.

    But let’s think about Mandelson to whom you referred as an exemplar of professionalism. Twice sacked from the cabinet for poor judgement and then embroiled in a scandal involving gossip with George Osborne at a dinner in Greece. This seems far more amateurish than Cable talking to two lying journalists posing as constituents.

    Let’s no forget the high calibre of Hewitt, Hoon and Byers, all caught in a sleazy and corrupt attempt to sell their position as former Cabinet members and their privileges as MPs. Blunkett exploited his position to help his girlfriend over a nanny as I remember. Hardly the smooth, cool judgement of an ‘experienced’ politician. Finally, let’s not forgot the saintly Tony who argued that war would refashion the Middle East for the better and then squashed a judicial enquiry into BAE corruption that is now proven, the kind of ongoing behaviour that entrenches the worst examples of autocracy in the region.

    What Dan appears to be exhibiting is a prevailing sour grapes within the Labour party that it lost the election and a smaller party is in government. I have no doubt that the current government will find its feet because the country needs stability. Labour needs a thorough purge and to demonstrate some humility before many voters give it a second chance. A new generation that understands New Labour’s grievous errors needs to come forward and which recognises that voters prefer cross party co-operation rather than entrenched ideological and tribal politics.

  2. Alex says:

    Josh, this would be patronising if it wasn’t true.

    The grapes of loss are very sour: watching a rabidly Thatcherite government smugly eviscerate our country, propped up by buffoons elected on progressive promises they are too dazzled by limos and red boxes to remember, and too amateurish to see the consequences carelessly discarding.

  3. Dan Hodges says:


    Definitely patronising. But not necessarily untrue.

    I do think the last Labour government, in the main, was run by professionals. They made mistakes, as all professionals do from time to time, but they were serious politicians with a clear vision and strategy.

    I’m afraid I just don’t thunk the same can be said for the current crop of Lib Dem ministers.

    Labour certainly needs to admit it got things wrong. But that’s not the same as saying Clegg and Cable are getting things right.

    Sour grapes. Haven’t you heard. All my articles are motivated by sour grapes.


  4. Martin says:

    “Given the opportunity presented by a hung parliament, he blew it again by announcing that he was starting negotiations with Cameron, instead of playing off both parties in an attempt to maximize his leverage.”

    I’m no fan of Clegg but he did do this, didn’t he?

    Cameron agreed to a referendum on AV only after Clegg started talking to Brown.

    If the referendum is passed, and the next election is fought under AV, it will all have been worth it for Clegg. The Lib Dems may lose votes but, under AV, will gain a big increase in seats. Coalition government becomes much more likely after subsequent elections.

    The Lib Dems’ couldn’t have got this from Labour – a referendum bill would not have made it through the Commons – nor would they have got this from confidence-and-supply with the Tories.

    I agree with everything else you say though.

  5. lester gillis says:

    Lame duck lib dems – enjoy the big finish/ed…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMdWIvZiqWA

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