David Blackburn

Clegg needs to find some courage

Clegg needs to find some courage
Text settings

Nick Clegg is eviscerated by this morning's press. The Independent, The FT and The Guardian gleefully report that the influential IFS has decreed the Budget (supposedly a model of fairness according to Clegg) to be regressive, that there is discontent fomenting on the Lib Dem benches and that the latest polls place Lib Dem support at 12 percent.

None of this is news. The IFS is reiterating what it argued on Budget day: Osborne’s measures will hit the poorest in 2014-15. That is still some way off and action can be taken to lessen their impact. Besides, the coalition should have delivered its promise to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000 by 20-14-25. Also, UK PLC owns enormous shareholdings in two potentially very profitable banks; at some stage they will yield dividends for the taxpayer, Clegg should insist that the windfall is spent in the cause of fairness.

The poll rating is a concern and support has hovered around 12-14 percent throughout the summer. But the party’s performance was similar anaemic when Charlie Kennedy was kicked out and it recovered in time. It is not a panic situation: the election is five years away. Internal Lib Dem dissent is not yet widespread. The same MPs who opposed the VAT hike remain in open discontent, but Bob Russell and Mike Hancock have not swelled their ranks. Certainly, there is tentativeness and reluctance in Lib Dem circles but most still recognise and want the opportunity to influence government for the first time in eighty years.

As the party conference approaches, Clegg's problem is that he does not seem to be influencing policy. There is to be an AV referendum and the tax system is being reformed in favour of fairness; but it is telling that senior Tory ministers are publicly resisting departmental cuts, not Lib Dems.  Clegg needs to find an alternative voice to that which just extols the cosy coalition. He can’t criticise government policy, but he should air a different narrative and promote debate occassionally (as Vince Cable did recently on immigration). It is a token but necessary gesture to quell the braying: otherwise Clegg and the Liberal Democrats will be subsumed.