In the days before conference, a party leader is usually up to his ears in drafts of his speech, worrying how best to please the crowd. But last Monday, Nick Clegg wasn’t slaving away at his speech. He was at Chequers with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, discussing, according to one participant, a new set of coalition commitments on the economy, education, welfare, childcare and social mobility. It will not please Clegg’s people to hear this. Lib Dems don’t like Tories or mansions, and that their leader was making policy with Dave and George on the brink of conference will cause anxiety.
But that Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws were at Chequers signing up to a renewed coalition agenda says more about the state of the government than anything that Clegg will say in Brighton next week, or that Cameron will say in Birmingham next month. At a previous Chequers strategy meeting in February, there were only Tories present and one of the main topics was what to do if the Liberal Democrats walked away. Now, the Deputy Prime Minister has decided to double down on coalition. He has concluded that the Lib Dems, rather than blocking Conservative ideas, must help push through bold solutions to big problems. It is a brave path to take — but Clegg’s reward will not come in this political life. Whether he knows it or not, his fate is to become a martyr to the coalition.
Perhaps the key to understanding Clegg is that he never quite expected the dark side of being in power: he lacks the coping mechanisms of his Conservative colleagues. When the financial crisis hit, and spending cuts became essential, David Cameron and George Osborne steeled themselves to wear unpopularity as a badge of honour in the same way Margaret Thatcher had done.
Clegg did no such thing. But he was nonetheless determined to show that the Lib Dems were just as cut out for government as the Conservatives. He believed he had to sign up to every tough decision, to allow no daylight between him and his new partners. So when the trebling of tuition fees came up, a policy that every Liberal Democrat MP had pledged personally to oppose, he didn’t sit it out (as Osborne, I gather, advised him to). Instead, he voted for it and told his MPs to do the same. At that moment, he became the focus of anti–government ire: a byword for what was wrong with coalition.
For a politician whose party had never been hated before, this was particularly painful. And at the same time, he was dealing with a civil service not set up to help a coalition Deputy Prime Minister. He began to complain of feeling permanently both underbriefed and exhausted. But the real kicker came with the electoral reform referendum, when his partners used his unpopularity to defeat a proposal dear to every Liberal Democrat.
After that, the coalition entered a new, more fractious period. But senior Lib Dems say that, with the squabbling over House of Lords reform and constituency boundaries concluded, the government is now in a ‘third phase’ of coalition — one to be defined by ‘competent and effective government’ and ‘the sharpening of dividing lines not between the Liberal Democrats and Tories but between government and opposition’.
The document that Cameron and Clegg were discussing at Chequers was a mid-term review of the coalition’s progress. It will begin with a joint statement that working together has been better than single-party government. This decision to revivify the coalition is motivated both by a desire to govern effectively and by a belief that public argument has only helped Labour, which leads by 15 points according to one survey this week.
Those around Clegg are unwilling to accept that he’ll be a martyr. The newly united government, they hope, will start not only to get things done but to get credit for doing them; and a recovering economy will restore their leader’s fortunes. The Lib Dems’ polling shows they are finally getting credit from the voters for the cut in the basic rate of income tax. This gives them hope that things are beginning to turn for the party.
After a year in office, many of those who worked for Clegg assumed he would step down before the next election. They believed that he had no desire to go through another tuition fees, to run the gauntlet of hate again. But Clegg’s allies are now insistent that he will lead the Liberal Democrats into 2015. One asks, ‘Why would you get this far and not take the battle forward?’
Certainly Clegg’s workload is now far better managed than it was, notwithstanding his recent declaration — in the earshot of Whitehall officials — that he hadn’t had a proper holiday this summer. He has hired several able advisers, improved the quality of the civil servants in his office and now has his closest intellectual ally, David Laws, with him in the Cabinet Office. Clegg’s political mentor, Lord Ashdown, urged him to give Laws a roving economic brief, so that he could offer advice independent of the Treasury. Clegg decided instead to split Laws’s time between the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education.
And at the moment Clegg does seem superficially secure. A minister close to him stresses that there’s ‘no agitation against Nick’ among his party’s MPs and without that he’s safe. At its first meeting after the summer recess, the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party ‘went ape’ (according to one present) at the few peers who had been sounding off against the leader. Some of Clegg’s friends even cheekily point out that it is the Prime Minister — not the Deputy Prime Minister — whose own MPs call publicly for his head.
Even so, Clegg is doomed. The problem was identified at the start of the year by Andrew Cooper, the Prime Minister’s director of strategy, in a private presentation to the trustees of Policy Exchange. Clegg’s brand is poisoned; his party’s isn’t. The compromises and broken promises of coalition have, according to Cooper’s exhaustive number-crunching, done irreparable damage to the Deputy Prime Minister’s reputation. Other polling makes the point even clearer. Ask people how they would vote if Vince Cable, not Clegg, was Liberal Democrat leader and the ratings jump three or four points. This might not seem much. But for a party struggling to break double digits in the polls, it is a transformation. This is why Clegg’s martyrdom is inevitable. However loyal his Commons army is, they will eventually have to sacrifice him for the good of the party.
Cable is not the only figure waiting in the wings. When the party president Tim Farron, darling of the left-wing activist base, was asked by the Sunday Telegraph if he would stand for leader, he replied, ‘Definitely not now or very soon’; about as far from a thorough denial as you can get. But Farron has two flaws as a candidate. It is hard to imagine him going straight from the backbenches to being Deputy Prime Minister; and he’s a Christian in a party with an aggressively secular wing, some members of which are already plotting how to thwart his leadership bid.
Cable, as it happens, actually piloted the increase in tuition fees through the House of Commons. But as a politician he appears to have the quality that Napoleon most valued in his generals: he is lucky. Take the secret recording of him boasting that he had ‘declared war’ on Rupert Murdoch, which nearly forced his resignation. When the phone-hacking scandal broke, it turned into a political plus for him.
Many Liberal Democrat MPs mutter that Cable is awkward to deal with. They suggest that the parliamentary party would be loath to trust itself to him. But he offers the Liberal Democrats both the gravitas of a Cabinet minister who has been in politics for more than 40 years and an ability to play the anti-establishment card as the man who was ‘right’ on the bankers and Murdoch. Crucially, he can also credibly claim that he could do a deal with either party after the next election, given that he’s both serving in a Conservative-led government and being wooed by Labour. As 2015 draws nearer, these strengths will outweigh any lack of personal chemistry.
Even some of those closest to Clegg acknowledge that this is his last autumn conference before the leadership issue starts to dominate everything. But if he can make the next year or two a time of government radicalism not paralysis, history might be kinder to him than the voters will be. He could, at least, claim to have been a martyr to a worthwhile cause.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 22 September 2012