Alex Massie

Nick Clegg’s Opportunity - And Responsibility

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A few days ago - that is, a couple of years back in blogworld - my old chum Iain Martin asked how Nick Clegg will fill his time. Without a department of his own what will the Deputy Prime Minister actually do? The first and obvious answer: less damage than ministers who have departments. Happily Brother Bright reminds us just how important Clegg is to this government. As Martin suggests this is much more of a joint-premiership than many people seem to appreciate.

As he points out the full coalition agreement is littered with bits and pieces that "will be agreed between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister". The single most important thing in this government is the relationship - and level of trust - between Cameron and Clegg. The Liberal Democrat leader is vastly more powerful than John Prescott was during the Blair ministry and, really, also much more significant than Heseltine was in the Major government. 

Clegg's role, in some ways, might be compared to that of a ship's Master. Yes, the Captain is in command of everything and has the final say but he depends heavily upon the Master to ensure that the ship sails properly and reaches its rightful destination. On a huge range of issues, then, Clegg is likely to be responsible for ensuring that agreements are met, policy co-ordinated and everyone kept happy. That's actually a pretty hefty job.

Of course in Nelson's time the Master wasn't a commissioned officer but that's a mere detail that need not detain us unduly. Furthermore, by "owning" political reform and, perhaps more significantly, the government's (welcome) civil liberties agenda Clegg has something that is both important and, in the latter instance anyway, deliverable that will demonstrate some achievement to his backbenchers while also reassuring the country-at-large that this is actually a partnership government. The publicity won't hurt either.

Being lumbered with a department, it now occurs to me, would have been a mistake, distracting Clegg from his more important co-ordinating and navigating role.

Yes, he'll be like some Vice-Presidents but, since that job has grown in recent times, that's not, as the Americans say, chopped liver.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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