5 things Nick Clegg could do next

Nick Clegg Q&A 8My last piece of advice to Nick Clegg was to stand down as Lib Dem leader. He didn’t, and it’s pretty clear now that Nick will lead us into the next general election.

Two problems remain, though, and we need to find ways of addressing them. First, morale in the party has dipped since the May elections. Secondly, support for the party has also dipped in the polls. Yes, Lib Dem MPs benefit from the incumbency effect but that only stretches so far – we also need to start winning the air war, or at the very least avoid being ignored. As it stands, what Nick says just isn’t getting a listening. However unfair, it’s a reality we need to deal with.

Here are five suggestions from me for ways in which Nick Clegg could help restore party morale and maybe get himself a hearing from the media and public…

1. Announce Vince Cable will be the party’s shadow chancellor at the next election.

I’m told it’s a done deal that Danny Alexander will get the nod. That would be a mistake. We need a shadow chancellor with clout, utterly secure on the economics, savvy about the politics. As I pointed out a couple of months ago, Vince has done a masterful job of walking “the tightrope of respecting collective cabinet responsibility while signalling quite clearly when and why he disagrees with the Conservatives, most notably on immigration”. Party members also favour – by 63% to 28% – having Vince represent the Lib Dems in the ‘Ask the Chancellor’ debates.

2. Keep the party’s options open in the event of a ‘hung parliament’

Nick Clegg has publicly ruled out the option of a ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement in the event no single party wins a majority in May 2015 (ie, the party won’t join a formal coalition but wouldn’t bring down a minority government either). I can understand why he’s sceptical of such an arrangement – as I’ve argued before, “It seems to me a way of getting all the pain of coalition with little of the gain of being in government.” But we need to keep all options available to maintain maximum negotiating leverage. What matters most is how we can deliver liberal policies in the next parliament. That’s most likely to happen in a full coalition, but not at any price. Tim Farron was spot-on to argue, “When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe, and let the other party believe, that there is a point at which you would walk away, and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind, that is something we all have to consider.”

3. Appoint Jo Swinson to the cabinet in the autumn

As I wrote in Total Politics after last year’s reshuffle, “It’s shaming that a party which proudly proclaims its belief in equality has never yet appointed a female cabinet minister.” Jo Swinson might have been promoted then, but her maternity leave was just about to begin. Now returned to work as an accomplished Business Minister, she is the obvious candidate for elevation (though she herself may prefer to devote the time to her marginal constituency where she has a tough fight on her hands). It’s of course true that a reshuffle just a few months before an election – when ministers have little scope to initiate change – might be seen as little more than window dressing. But it would at least signal some intent to address the Lib Dems’ “male, pale and stale” problem at the top of our party.

4. Stop going to PMQs, start touring the country

Focus groups, I’m told, show the public is baffled why Nick Clegg simply sits next to David Cameron without ever speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions. To them, he appears mute, powerless, sidelined. Nick himself is scathing of this weekly parliamentary pantomime: “It is just so stuck in the nineteenth century and it is so stuck in this adversarial, yah-boo culture. It is going to have to change at some point.” He can’t change it now, but what he can do is steer clear of it. The time spent attending PMQs could be much better used. Nick’s aides are, according to the Daily Mail, advising him to ditch his Spanish family holiday volunteer “for a ‘summer of pain’ doing ordinary jobs outside Westminster”, modelled on Paddy Ashdown’s 1993 ‘Beyond Westminster’ tour of Britain. Ignore half that, Nick: you and your family need your holiday. But getting out of Westminster every Wednesday at 12 noon seems like a sound idea.

5. “Let Clegg Be Clegg”

In the first ‘Nick v Nigel’ debate, Nick was himself: Mr Reasonable: moderate, persuasive, reforming. Then his aides got spooked by the polls showing Farage won the post-debate polls. Nick was schooled to exhibit ersatz passion and crack creaky one-liners. It didn’t come naturally. The result? He lost the second debate by losing himself. Of course party leaders need staff and colleagues able to feed them good lines – but they have to be lines which can be spoken comfortably and sound authentic. The next time Nick is guaranteed a hearing from voters will be the first televised leaders’ debate (whenever that is, whatever its format). I want The Real Nick Clegg to stand up and stick up for what he believes in – in his own words.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • William Barter 4th Jul '14 - 11:45am

    On point one, it’s worth noting that libdemvoice surveys show that more party members want Nick to stand down now than want Danny to speak on the economy at the next election as our shadow chancellor. I don’t want to get into a debate over whether Nick should stay or go – but I do want to highlight just how much the party membership supports Vince.


  • ” I want The Real Nick Clegg to stand up and stick up for what he believes in – in his own words.”

    The problem is that nobody trusts or believes his words anymore.

  • Peter Chegwyn 4th Jul '14 - 11:59am

    To help restore party fortunes:

    6. Do less TV Nick. The public don’t like you, don’t trust you, don’t listen to you. Let other Party figures represent our Party more often, particularly Paddy Ashdown, Shirley Williams and Charles Kennedy, all of whom the public DO still like, trust and respect, all of whom are more likely to be listened to than ‘toxic’ Nick.

  • Phil Rimmer 4th Jul '14 - 12:43pm

    The problem with (5) is that Nick Clegg was always at his best, performing live, in front of a live audience. It’s become apparent thought that his performance is just that, an act. There was a time when both the electorate and the party bought into this. However, there have been too many mistakes, too often a compromise too far and too many promises betrayed. The public have stopped listening to Clegg and so have a lot of us in his own party.

    Between hubris and soon to be former MPs hoping for Peerages, Clegg will now stay, of that I am certain. Given this, it will take a lot more than the 5 decent enough suggestions above to turn things around by the time of the election. Nice try though Stephen.

  • Geoffrey Payne 4th Jul '14 - 1:00pm

    Although I am sympathetic to a radical change in direction, it is not going to happen under Nick Clegg’s leadership. So I think that Stephen Tall’s suggestions are the best way forward.

  • matt (Bristol) 4th Jul '14 - 1:28pm

    This is all fair enough, particularly 1 and 2.

    I think there were many of us who hoped after the 1st Farage debate that Nick Clegg would get ‘more direct’ and ‘take the fight to Farage’ in the sense of showing how the EU benefitted thge ordinary person. He chose to interpret that (if that desire was communicated to him) as a requirement to get angry and personal and describe Farage’s voters as ‘nostalgists’ which, whilst justifiable, is not a way to win people over or back.

    The party does seem to struggle and agonise over with how to link with the ‘man in the street’ which often involves it in dumbing down its messages to simplistic depths – witness the way we didn’t trust the voters enough to list more than one or two candidates on the EU election literature – and the emphasis on specific ‘money in your pocket’ pledges which look too much like bribes. Too often, Nick Clegg seems to be (presumably not deliberately) either delivering his pronouncements too snootily and dismissively, or suddenly lurching towards hiding his obvious intelligence in a bid to be chummy and not intimidating.

    Widening the public sense of the LD ‘team’ would, of course, help. Clegg and Cable did not seem to be very well joined up duirng the last campaign…

  • Alex Macfie 4th Jul '14 - 1:40pm

    Nick v Nigel was a bad idea anyway.

  • 1. Vince has tuition fees and the disastrous Royal Mail privatisation on his hands. Danny just gives the impression of being incompetent.

    2. Fair enough.

    3. Bad idea. She’s a goner. Not her fault and not Clegg’s, she was always going to lose her seat next year as her vote has declined consistently since she was firs elected.

    4. Fair enough.

    5. Clegg is being Clegg. That’s partly the problem! You can’t be sanctimonious when you’ve compromised on the principles you professed in 2010, alas, he still is.

  • David Evans 4th Jul '14 - 2:04pm

    To ensure party fortunes are turned around – Stand down Nick. Now.

    Nothing else will do.

  • paul barker 4th Jul '14 - 2:42pm

    Points 2-5 seem like good ideas to me, especially 3. I dont get the Vince worship, he seems to me to speak before he thinks too often & comes across as much older than he is – echoes of Ming.
    The big thing holding us back that we can do something about is our lack of self-belief & thats mostly down to us.

  • Sensible suggestions but I’m struggling to see how we can go into the GE campaign with Nick Clegg as leader making all sorts of commitments for after May 2015 – for instance who will be shadow chancellor or that there will be no confidence & supply agreement in the event of another hung parliament.

  • “I’m told it’s a done deal that Danny Alexander will get the nod.”

    Who by, and can we persuade them what a really, REALLY bad idea this would be?

  • Iain Clarke-Coast 4th Jul '14 - 4:53pm

    I agree with Jennie, this would be ridiculous.
    2 is also a good point, particularly as Clegg is unlikely to be leader for long after the general election.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jul '14 - 5:21pm

    My feedback:

    1. As much as I like them personally, I think Danny’s economic policies are quite hypocritical (support for help to buy) and Vince’s are based on taxpayer subsidised debt, as if the country isn’t in enough debt. Neither here nor there for me.

    2. I agree we should not be coalition absolutists. Although I did used to believe we should only be removed from government kicking and screaming.

    3. I didn’t watch Question Time last night, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest Jo would make a better cabinet minister than all the others. It depends on the role, but if anyone I would favour Norman Lamb.

    4. I like Clegg being at PMQs. It’s better when it’s busy.

    5. I agree let Clegg be Clegg, but I preferred his performance in the second debate. The public didn’t, but the idea of the Party of IN was fundamentally flawed to begin with.


  • The only action that Nick Clegg can now do to promote the cause of liberalism is to stand down.

    If he will not then the responsibility to call a leadership election rests first with the parliamentary party and if they too choose to fail the cause of liberalism then the burden falls on the poor bloody infantry of the party, constituency association by constituency association, to secure the necessary 75 resolutions.

  • jedibeeftrix 4th Jul '14 - 5:42pm

    “It is just so stuck in the nineteenth century and it is so stuck in this adversarial, yah-boo culture. It is going to have to change at some point.”

    I like our adversarial politics.
    How government orders society (which, let’s face it, it does), should be a battle of ideas and will subject to the ultimate endorsement and sanction of the electorate.

  • How government orders society (which, let’s face it, it does), should be a battle of ideas and will subject to the ultimate endorsement and sanction of the electorate.

    And the people who do that ordering, and who are ultimately responsible for protecting our society from the rest of the world, should be strong enough to stand up and take whatever it thrown at them.

    If someone can’t handle PM’s questions, then I don’t want them going up against Vladimir Putin on my behalf.

  • Richard Dean 4th Jul '14 - 6:44pm

    Danny Alexander seems a much better choice – young, energetic, experienced. Cable will be 72 in 2015 and 77 in 2020. Many people wouldn’t trust a person that old to have such a huge and stressful responsibility, even if he’s actually still capable. Alternatively, how about Jo Swinson?

  • Brenda Lana Smith 4th Jul '14 - 6:55pm

    Any bookmaker out there willing to share what odds Nick’s right hand over head is subconsciously conveying? Pretty poor, methinks!

  • Tony Dawson 4th Jul '14 - 7:03pm

    “It’s pretty clear now that Nick Clegg will remain in the office as ‘Leader’.”

    Thinking of our target seat candidates for next May, Sir Geoffrey Howe’s speech seems rather apt.

    ” “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”. 🙁

  • Tony Dawson 4th Jul '14 - 7:08pm

    @paul barker:

    “Vince…. seems to me to speak before he thinks too often & comes across as much older than he is ”

    Intriguing. See him and Danny A both in the flesh and it is immediately clear which is the physically fitter. He also DOES think before he speaks, a skill which he could make a packet selling to a number of MPs who shall remain nameless (for now).

  • Point 2 certainly: “Nick Clegg has publicly ruled out the option of a ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement in the event no single party wins a majority in May 2015”. If by “a ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement” he means a formal agreement than I could see Clegg’s point, however there has to be the option with No Overall Control with no formal agreement.

    The nightmare outcome would be sharply reduced support for Lib Dems, but enough MPs to achieve a majority with Tories but not with Labour. In such an event, Lib Dem continuation in government would not be practical nor plausible and would be widely seen to lack legitimacy, yet there would be a need for some kind of government.

    A question that does not seem to have had much airing is what could the Tories or Labour offer the Lib Dems in a negotiation? The great incentive in 2010 was electoral reform, what could there be in 2015? Unless we count abolition of tuition fees, I do not see anything that would have big appeal to the membership.

  • Richard Dean 4th Jul '14 - 7:18pm

    How about thinking about which of the specifically LibDem policies might appeal most to the electorate? That “great incentive” was a bad mistake, because the electorate didn’t want it, and because it meant that the LibDems had to give away something that the electorate valued more.

  • The idea that the Prime Minister being able to smile prettily at the cameras while the opposition sits making farmyard noises somehow indicates adequate preparation for facing off against Vladimir Putin is quite amusing.

    Its also laughable that anyone can still think this vaunted adversarial system actually delivers the battle of ideas and scrutiny of policy that the country needs. It doesn’t – it delivers the adversarial tearing apart of individuals, leaving policy and the battle of ideas cast aside in the search for the next big put-down.

    And while we’re here, what’s this ‘ultimate endorsement and sanction’, Jedi? Governments in this country are generally in place on the back of 40% of the popular vote. There’s no democratic majority, so where’s the legitimacy?

    While our system should retain its ability to put the executive through the shredder on serious questions and misconduct, it is badly in need of reform if it has any intention of delivering good governance for the whole country. The problem lies as ever in the system being stuck in the 19th Century.

    Back then, the Westminster Parliament was of course an adversarial, yah-boo sort of place dominated by personality politics, the ball of high office being kicked between Gladstone and Disraeli. The difference was that the Victorian period also had a strong ‘provincialism’, where a greatly decentralised governing structure left much of the heavy lifting on policy to institutions further down the chain (or simply didn’t do anything, it was after all the period of laissez-faire on both sides of the house).

    We need to pull Parliament out of the 19th Century eventually, but that’s a political culture change that probably isn’t going to happen unless and until it lands us so completely in the crapper that we can’t avoid the question anymore.

    But between then and now, the harmful effects of the existing political culture can be somewhat reduced by restoring that provincialism and putting more powers before more local institutions.

    The experience in Scotland and Wales is that smaller institutions deliver better government when it comes to health, education, social services… Of course Scotland and Wales are too small to make relevant, meaningful and effective policy on lots of other areas, but that’s the problem that the idea of subsidiarity answers.

  • @Martin

    Better local government. Devolved regional assemblies for England might not take off, but we should at least be favouring greater powers and more control of budgets for councils, as well as provisions for getting groups of councils cooperating on policy and shared priorities for the new budgets if we can’t get proper devolution.

  • The idea that the Prime Minister being able to smile prettily at the cameras while the opposition sits making farmyard noises somehow indicates adequate preparation for facing off against Vladimir Putin is quite amusing

    It’s clearly not sufficient preparation, but it is necessary.

    Being able to cope with PMQs doesn’t prove that someone is worthy of taking charge of the country, but not being able to cope definitely proves that they aren’t.

    PMQs, then, performs the useful function of weeding the weak out of politics.

  • No it doesn’t. It performs the wholly counterproductive function of preserving in politics only those who can look unaffected and cheerful when presented with clear and damning evidence of their inadequacy, duplicity or failure.

    We managed all the way through to 1961 without it, and all the way through to the early 1980s before it was allowed to degenerate into the presidential-style grandstanding opportunity mixed with political pantomime show we know today.

  • Jonathan Pile 4th Jul '14 - 9:16pm

    Jo Swinson for deputy leader and Nick Clegg for euro commissioner!

  • Adam Robertson 5th Jul '14 - 2:22am

    I think Stephen is right with points 2 and 5. I think we need Nick to be reasonable and considerate, which he was during the 2010 General Election. He was also this in the first debate with Nigel Farage, which I thought he won and still remain of that opinion. While of the 2nd debate, I thought he was a bit irrational and trying to copy, Nigel Farage. This lost him some gravitas, I thought.

    I think Stephen is also right with point 2. I think all options should be on the table – I think we need to be more hard headed in negotiations with other parties, if there is a hung parliament. We will lose seats, but may be able to give both parties a majority, either in coalition or in a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement. We should not sell ourselves down the river again.

  • T-J: Whilst I do think your suggestion for local government reform, which follows the logic of subsidiarity, has merit, I find it difficult to see how it would be accepted as a basis for coalition with Conservatives. I do not think the scenario that I depicted has a solution. Perhaps under such circumstances, the least worst plan would be for Nick Clegg to resign so that any formalised agreement would not be possible until a successor had been elected.

  • Jayne Mansfield 5th Jul '14 - 11:21am

    @ Elizabeth Patterson,
    Are you for real?
    Stephen Tall and Mark Pack look like men to me, not ‘boys’. At what age do boys become men in your part of the world?

    Why is that ‘sweet girl’ Jo Swinson a ‘token’ woman? She seemed nervous, as many panellists both male and female do- with good reason on a programme like that.

    If the Asian PCC was so interesting, why can’t you remember his name, he does have one? I remember it and I can’t imagine referring to him as the ‘Asian PPC’. Maajid Nawaz writes articles on here, so if you found him interesting, on the programme you might find these interesting. too. It might also help you to remember his name!

    Your post has been a master class in how to patronise those you call patronising.

  • 1. Vince is now poison to the electorate due to the sale of the Royal Mail, in opposition to the majority of the public.

    3. The addition of anyone who is not white and/or male to the Lib Dem part of the cabinet would be welcome.

    4. He might say he doesn’t like the “yaa-boo, adversarial culture”, but he is happy to be part of it during DPMQs, where he constantly trots out “the mess Labour left”, rather than answering questions about the effects of the coalitions policies.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Jul '14 - 12:22pm

    I agree Elizabeth’s language could have been better, but I think she made some very good points.

    We aren’t quite on the same page yet Jayne :).

  • Clegg the undertaker, steadily burying the party ,not the government, further and further underground.

  • Tony Dawson 5th Jul '14 - 3:09pm

    @Matthew Harris

    “get ready to respond when the voters say they want to re-elect the current government, because the current government includes us.”

    Matthew, I seriously hope nobody ever allows you anywhere near an election campaign. People are already highly-polarised into those who like and those who dislike the government. And those who like it have already largely (due to our ‘leadership'(sic)) decided that it is a Conservative government permitted by a self-serving ‘add on’. Any idea that this Party or any other will suddenly be able to capitalise upon some mythical mystical ‘late swing’ amoggstthe electorate would be amusing if it were not apparently put forward seriously.

  • Tony Dawson 5th Jul '14 - 3:12pm


    ” Vince is now poison to the electorate due to the sale of the Royal Mail,.”

    Your evidence for which is what? Sounds like serious wishful thinking.

    Whatever their opinions about this (and it could well have been done better) most voters do not have any particular care about this issue at all. They are much more interested in the increased opening hours and range of services now provided in many post offices. And no body remembers or cares which Minister was in charge of this policy when implemented.

  • Peter Watson 5th Jul '14 - 4:22pm

    @Matthew Harris “I say to party colleagues: get ready to respond when the voters say they want to re-elect the current government, because the current government includes us.”
    Re-electing this government – including us – is not an option for voters; it is simply a possible but very unlikely outcome of our electoral system. No voters “chose” it in 2015, and unless you are advocating an electoral pact with the Conservatives, no electors will be able to choose it in 2015.

  • Peter Watson 5th Jul '14 - 4:23pm

    Oops – obviously should have been “no voters chose it in 2010”.

  • Alex Macfie 5th Jul '14 - 6:25pm


    there were many of us who hoped after the 1st Farage debate that Nick Clegg would get ‘more direct’ and ‘take the fight to Farage’ in the sense of showing how the EU benefitted thge ordinary person.

    And therein lies the problem. That was not the question on which we should have been fighting the Euro election campaign. We should have been fighting it on what our MEPs have done, as Liberals, to make sure that the EU benefits the ordinary person. We don’t fight UK elections on how the UK benefits the ordinary person, we fight them on what we, as the Liberal Democrats, have done and hope to do to achieve this effect, and the same principle should apply to EU elections.
    That is why Nick vs Nigel was a serious error in principle. It gave free publicity to Nigel Farage; it pushed the debate onto Farage’s territory, and it associated our Euro campaign with Clegg and the Coalition, when we should have been emphasising our European Parliamentary Party’s independence from the Coalition (as Chris Davies called it, a “Coalition-free Zone”). Our national Euro-election campaign completely ignored the one arena where our elected representatives make decisions affecting the whole of the UK by taking an undiluted Lib Dem line. and I find that unforgiveable.

  • Listen to Peter Chegwyn. He doesn’t pontificate he simply wins elections. Clegg is a major liability.

  • Hannah Bettsworth 5th Jul '14 - 7:35pm

    Jo Swinson is amazing and she would be an awesome minister.

  • “With hindsight, we should have made PMQs an event at which PM and DPM each answer some of the questions each week.”

    Ending, perhaps, with Cameron and Clegg dancing down the gangway singing “Bring me sunshine …”?

  • Naomi Smith SLF CoCh 5th Jul '14 - 8:03pm

    Great advice. I think Jenny Willott would also be a very good minister. She really shone at BIS.

  • Watching Lib Dem MPs sit on the Tory benches and nod as Cameron holds forth makes me cringe. Imagine the impact on our remaining centre-left supporters, not to mention those on the centre-left who have drifted away but must return if the party is to survive!

    However, simply dispatching Nick Clegg to the shires to get pummeled with rotten vegetables will be of little help. We have to have a leader whom the electorate is prepared to lend its ear and respect. Nick Clegg is not that person.

    Supposing we did have the chance to elect a different leader (and it doesn’t look as if that’s going to happen this side of next May), I would actually go much further than taking the leader out of PMQs. I would send all our MPs out to their constituencies for the final 12 months. I would take all our MP ministers out of government (apart, perhaps, from the top three) and replace them with peers. It is impossible for MPs to put in the work to create an incumbency effect if they are sitting behind a desk in Whitehall.

    I entirely agree with suggestions (1) and (2). As for (1), Vince is too good an asset not to use to full effect. And as for (2), we should wait to see what the electoral arithmetic is, then decide what is in the best interests of the country.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Jul '14 - 11:06am

    Matthew Harris

    I believe that in the run-up to the next election voters will decide that they want Cameron and not Miliband, but that they don’t want a Conservative Government – they’ll decide that want the Conservatives plus us again, as the least worst option.

    On the most optimistic interpretation of that, it means people will vote Liberal Democrat in LibDem-held seats, otherwise they’ll vote Conservative. It pushes the Liberal Democrats to where the Liberals were from the 1930s onwards – holding on to a few places where for historical reasons they were the anti-Labour party, but with no scope for expanding.

    In reality I think even if it were an acceptable path for the party (it isn’t for me, and for many others whose support for the party was more that they saw it as a better form of political left than that of Labour) it is too sophisticated. If people like this government and want to keep it, they’ll vote Conservative, if they don’t like it, they’ll vote Labour. Sure, I think we’ll benefit a little from the incumbency factor as we always do, but there are still many, many voters who don’t pay much attention to which constituency they are in and so just vote for the party label, and I think you’ll find if they want what you say they want, that means they’ll vote Conservative even in the seats we hold.

  • Hannah Bettsworth

    “Jo Swinson is amazing and she would be an awesome minister.”

    I like Jo Swinson and think she does a pretty good job, but “amazing” and “awesome” – not in a million years.

  • David Allen 9th Jul '14 - 11:40am

    Stephen Tall said:

    2. Keep the party’s options open in the event of a ‘hung parliament’

    probably because Clegg has conspicuously not done that. Ruling out confidence-and-supply is a bit like a gladiator throwing away his trident and opting to fight with the net alone – it’s just terrible tactics to reduce your battle options unnecessarily. More seriously, Clegg has made no real attempt to reach out to Labour. So the Tories know he has nowhere else to go. So the Tories can screw him if they want to, which they may.

    We need a real leader who can deal with all the options.

  • matt (Bristol) 9th Jul '14 - 12:00pm

    “More seriously, Clegg has made no real attempt to reach out to Labour.”

    How do we know this?

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