James Forsyth

Nick Clegg’s balancing act

Nick Clegg's balancing act
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Today’s Lib Dem revelations are of the embarrassing, but not explosive, variety. David Heath, the deputy leader of the House, and Norman Baker, the transport minister, hypocritically say they are against tuition fees, despite having voted to let universities charge fees of up to £9,000. Baker also, crassly, compares himself to Helen Suzman, the anti-apartheid campaigner, working from within to change the system. But, beyond that, the remarks are what you’d expect a Lib Dem MP to say to a party supporter complaining about various Tory members of the government.

I suspect Nick Clegg will be slightly more worried about Adrian Sanders, the MP for Torbay, issuing a broadside against the Lib Dem leadership. Sanders accuses Clegg & Co. of being uncomfortable with their own party and far too interested in showing the Tories that they are tough. He calls on them to boast far more about Lib Dems policy gains and how they have stopped the Tories from doing things that they wanted to do. This, interestingly, is the approach taken by Tim Farron, the newly elected party president, who was one of the Lib Dems to vote against the coalition on fees.

One can see the attraction of this approach: it will make the Lib Dems feel better about being in government with the Tories. But it would be massively destabilising to the coalition. The Tory party would become incredibly fractious if the Lib Dems kept loudly boasting about what they had stopped the Tories from doing. Also the sight of a clearly divided government would not please the voters or the markets.

In a country that traditionally does not love coalitions, there is no easy way to make coalition government work. Our adversarial politics demands clear divisions, while coalitions try to blur them. But in this delicate balancing act that is coalition politics, the most important thing in the New Year is for Clegg to offer some reassurance to his party, to win himself the time and space to operate successfully within the coalition.

This will require an emphasis on the Lib Dem’s achievements in government. But  – and this is where the balancing act becomes so tricky – this must not be accompanied by any sense that he is distancing himself from the rest of the coalition’s programme.