Last week saw the second anniversary of Nick Clegg’s leadership of the Liberal Democrats. LDV marked the occasion by inviting three Lib Dem bloggers to assess Nick’s contribution to date, and to look ahead to what the future might hold. You can read Neil Stockley’s post here, and Iain Roberts’ here. Today is Mark Thomspon’s turn …
The first thing I would say is that had I have been a member in 2007 I would have voted for Chris Huhne. I think his politics are closer to my own personally and I felt he had the higher profile. However in the last year I have been impressed with Clegg’s activity and leadership and if the contest was run again now I am not sure which way I would vote (not helped by my bafflement at Huhne’s stance on Geert Wilders).
The first time I saw Clegg in the flesh was when he made the keynote speech at the one day conference in January at the LSE. He came across as a very good orator and the content of the speech was impressive too. The part of it that sticks in my mind was when he talked about parental leave and the plans for extending the rights and allowing fathers much more time off with the available time to be shared between the parents more evenly. Perhaps it is because he is a father of young children himself but he described these measures with genuine passion. I have seen him a number of times since and on each occasion have been equally impressed.
I think the best thing Clegg has done this year is his campaign for the Gurkhas. He worked away in the background on this for months and it was only when the campaign reached its peak and it became clear how strong the public feeling was that the Gurkhas should be able to settle here that suddenly Cameron decided he wanted to associate himself with it too. It was so successful that the government was forced to change its policy. I also think the rallying call of the campaign: “If you are willing to die for this country, you should be able to live in this country” was pitch perfect and was a great example of summarising a political message in a way that is digestible for a wide audience.
He also seems to have found his feet at PMQs and regularly lands blows on Gordon Brown despite the pathetic heckling he has to endure. He seems very confident in that role and regularly makes the most of his two questions.
However there have of course been some problems. I would say the biggest failing of his leadership this year was losing vote share at the European Parliament elections in June. Our share slipped from 14.9% (in 2004) to 13.7%. I expect Nick was very disappointed about this as a former MEP himself but I really felt this was not good enough. I know it was in the wake of the expenses scandal but the Conservatives (who had some of the worst transgressors in the scandal) still managed to increase vote share.
Which brings me to the expenses scandal. Despite the fact that our MPs were relatively clean (certainly all the most egregious examples were perpetrated by either Labour or Conservative MPs) we do not seem to have gained any advantage from this. If anything, David Cameron has somehow managed to position himself as the leader who is most active in trying to clean things up, even though all he has done is make a few speeches and has actually done nothing to tackle the fundamental problems that helped foster an environment where MPs felt able to make the claims they did with impunity. Cameron has seized the media initiative and at least appears to be articulating what the public are feeling.
To be fair to Clegg, he did try with his “100 days to clean up Westminster” campaign where he tried to insist that MPs should stay on over the summer to show commitment to fixing the system. However, when the other parties ignored this and all drifted off on holiday the Lib Dems themselves did likewise. Why was there not a plan in place to cope with this (likely) eventuality and for Lib Dem MPs to stay on themselves in some form? I know this might not have made Clegg very popular amongst the parliamentary ranks but it could have been a powerful way of sending a message to the country that our party was really trying to make a difference. Aside from anything else it just looked weak to call for MPs to stay on and then for us not to do anything concrete about it ourselves.
The next few months will be the biggest test of Nick Clegg’s political career as he leads us into the general election. I genuinely feel that the more the public see of him (as will happen during the election campaign – by law!) the more they will warm to him, he is a great public speaker. He will need to keep his sometimes slightly spiky responses to questions that irk him in check – there will be lots of them and he needs to come across as calm and measured at all times, except when passion is called for of course.
Nick has already outlasted his immediate predecessor and the problems over the leadership of the party that dogged the early years of this parliament now seem to be well and truly behind us. Nobody seriously thinks that there will be any change in the leadership any time soon and given the recent problems, that is a testament in itself to his leadership skills.
Like with all political leaders, they are best judged on how they fight elections. Unusually, all three main party leaders are untested at general elections (the first time this has happened since 1979) so in a way he is on an even playing field in terms of experience, something neither Ashdown nor Kennedy had when fighting their own first general elections.
I expect we will all be much clearer on his strengths and weaknesses by the time his third year as leader is finished.
* Mark Thompson blogs at Mark Reckons.