David Blackburn

Clegg: time to air our differences

Clegg: time to air our differences
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Why vote Lib Dem? Even Nick Clegg is now asking that question. After 8 months of broken pledges, deep cuts and atrocious polling (due to reach its nadir tomorrow in Oldham East and Saddleworth), Clegg worries that his party is losing its identity. Speaking to the Guardian, Clegg reveals that he hopes to arrest decline by expressing publicly his private differences with David Cameron.

This is not defiance from Clegg but a statement of positive intent. Taking brave decisions, he says, has proved that the Liberal Democrats can govern and that coalition works; the government’s strength is sufficient to withstand disagreement. That’s all very well, but Clegg needs more than mere differences: all politicians have their differences. Rather, Clegg needs to mark clear distinctions between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, and to do that he needs David Cameron’s complicity.

Fortunately for Clegg, Cameron needs him too: this government could not sustain a change of Liberal leader and the Conservative leadership has to quell backbench disquiet about possible mergers. So, the two leaders will work together to drive each other apart. Control Orders, which are to be diluted and renamed Surveillance Orders, apparently, are a natural starting point. Presumably, this will be spun as a Liberal Democrat reform. Ed Balls’ critique is that political dynamics have trumped national security. Clegg gave a riposte in a speech on liberty last week: the reform is the triumph of ideology and pragmatism. Pragmatically, the empirical evidence is that Control Orders are divisive; ideologically, the Liberal Democrats have restored Britain’s ancient traditions of liberty after the previous administration’s authoritarian wrecking; ergo, the Liberals are the party of responsibility and liberty (that the Tories would also claim that crown is immaterial).

Clegg’s task will ease as the economy improves: for example, the Liberal Democrats will be the party that raised the income tax threshold to £10,000; the party that increased the pupil premium. But the road there is treacherous.