The Lib Dems usually go into politics to swim with the tide, to advocate motherhood, apple pie and free tuition fees and squeezing the rich until the pips squeak. As I say in the News of the World (£) today, if Nick Clegg had wanted to burned in effigy and have excrement pushed through the letterbox, he’d have joined the Tory party. So all this hatred is having a hardening effect on him: steel is entering his spin. But how he responds to this is worth examining.
He signed a pledge promising to abolish tuition fees, and will next week end up signing to almost treble the top limit. It’s not so much a U-Turn as a hit-and-run, with the dazed Lib Dem voter asking if they can ever trust Clegg again. Clegg argues it’s the price for government: compromises have to be made, sacred cows slaughtered. And he asks: are the Lib Dems serious about power? Because if they are, they need to reconcile themselves to such compromises. Unless they think they’re going to command a majority, the party is in politics to change the voting system and enter coalitions as its counterparts do in Europe. So, of course there have to be U-Turns. And Clegg wonders if his purist colleagues, who will vote against the government over this and resent the concessions, were ever interested in government – or whether they wanted to stay forever a protest party of opposition. Suffice to say there’s a Lib Dem split on the need for such fundamental compromises, and Clegg is on the right side of it.
But, crucially, Clegg wants to take this kicking. He understands Lib Dem voters will be angry, and that plenty students will be fuming. From what I understand, he was not even angry about the attack on his home – he believes they have a right to burn him in effigy. He sees it as cathartic. Just as Tony Blair adopted a “masochism strategy” in 2005, where he wanted to be beaten up by audiences across the country, so Clegg has adopted a masochism strategy for next week. Danny Alexander the same: something tells me he was not looking forward to Question Time last week. But he is there to confront his critics, and take the earache.
Interestingly, I understand that David Cameron offered to make some huge announcement before the tuition fees vote - to take the heat off Clegg. No, the Deputy PM replied, let’s not try any pyrotechnics. It’s a kicking I have to take.
He can console himself with the fact that students tend not to vote (most under-30s don’t) and that he’s taking this stick one year in to what he hopes is a five-year plan. And of the happy few who remain Lib Dem supporters, one in three didn’t vote Lib Dem at the last election. So coalition is winning them converts, although it’s not yet clear if this extends beyond new staff members and blood relatives. And yes, a continental shelf has fallen away from the Lib Dem vote – but Clegg believes that any ex-Labour voter who came to the party in protest at Iraq was never going to stay long anyway. As he told his party before the last conference, there’s no future for them as a leftist protest party.
I have yet to speak to a Tory minister that dislikes Clegg, or their Lib Dem colleagues. But most reckon that Clegg is doomed, that he won’t rebuild his support as he hopes. That he can kiss goodbye to Cambridge, Cardiff, Bristol, all these student-y constituencies – and maybe, even, his own. For his part, Clegg argues that no one knows: British politics is in flux, that the wheel’s still in spin and there’s no telling who that it’s naming. Who knows what constituencies might be in play in 2015? So his path now is to make his arguments as clearly and honestly as he can, make the case for liberalism (a word not often used in British politics) and see if he can rally people around that cause over the next five years. But this protest starts with taking a kicking. And that is what he intends to do next week.
UPDATE: Frank P has asked if the Tories have basically given up, and don't hate Lib Dems as they should. Opinion on the coalition varies widely within the party, but I'd say that Cameron's position - that the coalition is better than governing with only Tory MPs - is a minority. Most Tories are hoping for a pure Tory government after the next election, and people like Liam Fox say so in terms. Although a significant number (represented by modernisers like Nick Boles) prefer coalition (for the reasons stated in Boles' significant book). But what surprises me is that even Tory ministers who say they "hate" the coalition (a nd there are more than you'd think) do not bitch about their LibDem colleagues. Both sides are still surprised at how well they get on, and how much they agree on. The Tories think the Lib Dems are closet Tories, and are happy to be liberated. The Lib Dems think, in turn, that they have brought out the liberal in the Tory Party and that it's a kind of reverse takeover.