James Forsyth

Clegg embodies his party’s incoherence

Clegg embodies his party's incoherence
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Nick Clegg started the Lib Dem conference with an interview calling for ‘savage cuts’ in public spending and ended it with a speech trying to position the Lib Dems as the main party of the left in Britain. That pretty much sums up the strategic incoherence of this conference which has left the Lib Dems worse off than they were before.  

The Lib Dems have had an awful week for several reasons. First, they haven’t done the basics well—putting Clegg up against Obama was hardly clever programming and not informing every spokesperson of policy announcements before the media was told was bound to cause trouble. (How no one thought to tell Julia Goldsworthy of a change that so dramatically impacted on her brief is beyond me). Second, the party has been inept at working out the risk reward ratio of the various policies it is proposing. Why, for instance, downgrade the pledge on student fees when it is the one policy that motivates a substantial chunk of your voting base> Finally, the media has held them to something approaching the standard that they hold the two main parties to. Westminster’s little secret has always been that the Lib Dems are more split internally than either Labour or the Tories. Indeed, if full PR was introduced, I’d wager that the Lib Dems would be the first party to split.

Clegg’s speech was good in places but overall failed to convince. I must admit that when he talked about what the various members of his frontbench would do in government, it seemed to reinforce how unlikely that prospect is.

But having said all this, the polling numbers are far from all bad for the Lib Dems and their policy of raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, the policy that Clegg promised to major on at the election, could be very popular. The Lib Dems still have an opportunity thanks to Labour’s problems but they are going to have to significantly up their game to take it. If they carry on like they did this week, the next election could be deeply disappointing for them.