Isabel Hardman

Three things we learnt from Nick Clegg’s comeback speech

Three things we learnt from Nick Clegg's comeback speech
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Nick Clegg gave his mop-up speech today after the European elections. It was an attempt to reassure his party that he has listened to their concerns, and to tell everyone else watching that he's nowhere near giving up. Alongside his new budgetary rules, there were also three very interesting aspects of the speech worth considering:

1. The Lib Dems believe they have the moral high-ground.

There is something fascinating about the mindset of a party leader who thinks that calls to set out his core beliefs can be satisfied with the following platitudes:

  • You can be fair but responsible with it.
  • You can be credible without being cruel.
  • You can free our children from our debts while investing in their futures too.
  • We don’t write off anyone and we don’t think that politicians and governments know best.
  • I've yet to hear a politician who says 'actually, I don't really believe in people' or 'wouldn't it be great if we were honest that being unfair is fun?' Yet Clegg is setting up a divide with the other parties that is essentially 'as Lib Dems we care about people, and the rest of you don't'. It might be quite appealing to some voters who hold themselves in similar high esteem, but it's not really a core belief. Unless you are a particularly self-loathing politician, you'll argue from whatever ideological standpoint that you're in politics to help people and increase opportunity (even if the truth is rather more complicated than that).

    Clegg sketched out where the other parties stand - 'Labour think that good things are done to people, not by people' and the Conservatives 'basically believe in conserving the pecking order as it is'. But when he got to arguing that the Lib Dems 'just see the world differently' and are not a 'split the difference' party, his definition of what it means to be a Lib Dem slipped back into platitude, not something that offered a particularly strong whiff of an underpinning philosophy. He listed the policies his party has prioritised in government, and said these priorities were 'because the Liberal Democrats believe that every boy and girl has something to offer, someone just needs to give them a chance to shine. Because we never fail to be amazed by the things that people are capable of when they're given half a chance'. Buried in this could be a reference to the 'enabling state' that Clegg's camp likes to talk about, especially when trying to defend his pet free school meals policy. But it's not quite clear.

    At times his party's Twitter feed resembled a collection fortune cookie messages as it churned out some of his platitudes:

    — Liberal Democrats (@LibDems) June 9, 2014

    — Liberal Democrats (@LibDems) June 9, 2014

    — Liberal Democrats (@LibDems) June 9, 2014

    — Liberal Democrats (@LibDems) June 9, 2014

    — Liberal Democrats (@LibDems) June 9, 2014

    2. Clegg does realise his problems go beyond Lord Oakeshott

    There was fury in the anti-Nick camp when Lord Oakeshott bungled his coup, because the Deputy Prime Minister's more reasonable critics feared they may no longer get a hearing with what were genuine concerns about the party's strategy and the willingness of the leadership to listen to feedback. So his acknowledgement that there are lessons the party needs to learn from the European and local elections and his decision to conduct a review into the campaign is an attempt to answer some of those concerns.

    He also referred to the concern he has expressed in private: that his campaign in the European elections came across as too ardently pro-European. Clegg said:

    'I’ve heard people say that, in the European elections, our campaign as the Party of IN was too blunt: that we allowed our opponents to suggest that we think the status quo in Brussels is just fine. We don't think its fine. I've been a pro-European reformer my whole political life. It's precisely because I value Britain's place in Europe that I've not only campaigned for reform, but in the ten years I spent in Europe I've probably done more to make Brussels less bureaucratic, more open and more in line with Britain's interests than any other party leader. And I fully accept that, as this debate rumbles on, the Liberal Democrats must campaign as the Party of IN and the party of reform.'

    3. The Lib Dem persecution complex is still at work

    One of the ways the Lib Dems band together as a party uniting two reasonably different creeds is by repeatedly asserting that the world is against them. Clegg deployed that persecution complex again today, saying:

    'From the moment we entered government, Labour, their supporters in the trade unions, their friends in the press, the Conservatives, their financial backers and their powerful friends in the press have all sought to caricature the Liberal Democrats as a party that has traded in what we believe for a whiff of power.

    'And it's worth remembering why they do this. Because they hate the fact that we've got a foot in the door. Because the Liberal Democrats in government is the biggest threat to the establishment in a generation - the cosy stitch up between the red team and the blue team.'

    His passage refuting these claims was one of the better bits of his speech, mainly because he dropped the fortune cookie platitudes for a little bit. He said:

    ‘After election night Miriam and I travelled down to London on the first train from Sheffield and, if you ask me what I was thinking about, it was the good, hardworking Liberal Democrat MPs who'd lost their seats; it was my old friend Paul Scriven who, despite winning an extra 9000 votes for the Liberal Democrats, had just lost out to Labour in Sheffield Central – the neighbouring constituency to mine.

    ‘So our mood was not one of carefree opportunism. Instead the decision we took was a gritty, grown up decision based on what was needed for the country. We didn’t go into government because it was the easy thing to do, we went into government because it was the right thing to do. Because the country was teetering on the edge. The biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Rioters and flames on the streets of Athens. Crisis meetings in Brussels as Europe’s leaders tried desperately to keep the continent afloat. We knew we would pay a price for working with the Conservatives. We knew we would have to do controversial things to clean up Labour’s mess. We knew we would lose the support of the people who had only ever voted for us to stick two fingers up to the other two. But we did it anyway. This plucky, bold, courageous party, which had never been in power in Westminster before, put the country’s interests before our own interests and we gave Britain a stable government in extraordinarily insecure times. And in providing that stability we've helped millions of people keep their jobs. We’ve helped businesses across Britain stay afloat. The country's shattered economy, now finally back on track.

    ‘So don’t let our critics rewrite history. We went into government for good, decent, honourable reasons and no one should be allowed to take that away from us.’

    As for what the Lib Dems plan to do after 2015, Clegg's plan for a Lib Dem 'balanced budget rule', as well as a new debt rule, is being compared to Labourish thinking on the economy and therefore read as a sign that he's mulling the possibility of working with Ed Miliband's party in 2015. It might be an attempt to reassure his party that he would not automatically jump rightwards if he had the opportunity to choose between the two main parties. But the rest of his speech may not do much to reassure those in his party who fear he doesn't have a strong definition of Liberalism.

    Written byIsabel Hardman

    Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is author of Why We Get The Wrong Politicians.