The Independent View: Iain Dale on Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems

When LibDem MPs return to Westminster this week they could be forgiven for having a collective panic attack. In their 22 year history they have never had such an onslaught of the political heebie-jeebies as they experienced at the hands of 12 million grumpy voters this week.

Cleggmania has turned into Cleggophobia. Every policy Nick Clegg touches now is seen to be toxic.

Westminster pundits are already writing him off as a political busted flush. But then again, these are the very same commentators who didn’t see the SNP landslide coming in Scotland. They are the same people who predicted the Tories would lose more than 1,000 local council seats, when in fact David Cameron ended up with 81 more councillors on Friday than he had had only 24 hours earlier.

No, the Westminster commentariat is being rather previous in writing off the political career of Nicholas William Peter Clegg.

It may sometimes be difficult to believe but the Nick Clegg you see making apologetic, contrite statements on TV this weekend is the very same Nick Clegg who, only twelve months ago was riding on the crest of a political wave. He is the same man, with the same talents as the one who convinced so many people in TV debates that he was the real political deal.

Since then it hasn’t exactly been an easy ride for the LibDem leader. He became the anti-poster boy for students over the tuition fees issue. So unpopular did he become that the Yes to AV campaign wanted nothing to do with him. His presence in the Yes to AV campaign was regarded as toxic by the pro AV people. Elements of his own party have started whispering against him. They should be careful what they wish for.

Just twelve short months ago, Clegg led the Liberal Democrats into power for the first time in three quarters of a century. He out negotiated the Conservatives and secured a huge amount of the LibDem manifesto in the coalition agreement. Indeed, quite a lot of it has already been implemented, but you’d never know it because Clegg and his colleagues have been so inept at telling us. Instead, they concentrate on how they have supposedly stopped the wicked Tories from laying waste to the economy. It’s as if their message has become “Vote for us, we’re quite good at stopping the Tories being Tories.”

The sight of Chris Huhne and Paddy Ashdown stomping from TV studio to TV studio whinging about how the Conservatives have, shock horror, been ruthless in campaigning for a No Vote in the AV referendum has been pathetic to behold. You want to pull the dummy from their mouths and shout ‘Diddums’.

The sainted Vince Cable bleats on about how the Tories are “ruthless, calculating and tribal,” without the faintest hint of irony in his voice. Has he never observed a LibDem by election campaign? Labour and Conservative supporters still remember the LibDem campaign manual which urged their candidatess to “stir wickedly, act shamelessly”?

A friend of mine in Norfolk opened the door to LibDem canvasser last week. “I’m fed up with the lies your MPs have told,” he said. “Ah, but we don’t lie at local level, “ said the LibDem activist without a hint of a smile. The gut reaction of many LibDem activists and parliamentarians will be to distance themselves from David Cameron and the coalition. This would be a mistake. They have made their bed and there is nowhere else for them to lie. They will succeed or fail together, so they have to make the best of it. LibDem ministers like Vince Cable should think about that the next time they prepare to self indulgently sound off in the media.

The LibDems must also take on board the fact that David Cameron is no longer prepared to wrap Nick Clegg in a comfort blanket. Time after time the Prime Minister has come to his deputy’s rescue – much to the irritation of his backbenchers – and offered him a bauble, a little crumb of comfort at a difficult time. He’s turned a blind eye when LibDem ministers have gone off message, while at the same time coming down on his own rebellious backbenchers like a ton of bricks. No longer. Cameron has rediscovered his inner Conservative. Some would say, and not before time.

But what does Nick Clegg do now? Part of his problem is that the job of Deputy Prime Minister is not a real job. In many ways it’s a non job – ‘not worth a bucket of warm spit’, as John Nance Garner once said of the US Vice Presidency. Clegg’s only real policy role is to be in charge of political and constitutional reform. Well that’s worked out well, hasn’t it? And next up is House of Lords reform. Clegg would be well advised to wash his hands of that particular hornet’s nest because it is almost certainly going to end in failure.

Clegg’s best chance of recovering his once towering reputation is for David Cameron to be given a proper departmental job. It almost doesn’t matter which one. But it would give him an opportunity to actually do something, rather than just talk. If it were me, I’d give Clegg the job of Health Secretary. Then we’d see if he would sink or swim.

But that is the only concession David Cameron should make to the LibDems. He should indeed be ‘ruthless and calculating’, and send off any LibDem demanding futher concessions on health reform or indeed any other policy covered in the coalition agreement with their tails between their legs. What could they do about it? Nothing. They have nowhere else to go. The LibDems know that if they were to leave the coalition they would become the laughing stock of British politics. I know it. You know it. David Cameron knows it and more importantly, so does Nick Clegg.

Secondly, the LibDems need to start talking about issues which come up in conversation down the Dog & Duck. AV was never going to be one of those issues. The very fact that only eight boroughs in the UK voted in favour of AV demonstrated that perfectly. It was a ‘chattering class’ issue. No wonder the eight boroughs included the elitist climes of Oxford, Cambridge, Islington and Camden. No one else cared. It’s the same with House of Lords reform. The Westminster elites discuss it over their sun dried tomatos and polenta, but no one in the real world sees it as a political priority.

Clegg will always be a lightning rod for the LibDem side of the coalition. It comes with the job, but he needs to ensure that the burden is shared. It’s about time he reigned in Vince Cable and told him to knuckle down and do his job and that he can’t be Mr Popular all the time. The tendency of LibDems like Vince Cable and Simon Hughes to wear their political consciences on their sleeves is not an attractive one. It makes them look weak and ill-fitted to the job of leadership and government.

There is one further move that Nick Clegg can make to revive LibDem fortunes, and that is to ask the Prime Minister to restore David Laws to the Cabinet. The events of the last few months show how much his strategic brain has been missed. It is a scandal that the Standards Commissioner is taking so long to decide on his case, which is the only thing standing between him and a return to office.

The LibDems have always been at their happiest when they can chant in unison “I protest”. Government is not about protesting, it’s about making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions and standing by them. Nick Clegg and his party still have to prove that they are capable of doing this. But there’s still time.

Yesterday was an electoral wipeout for the LibDems all across England, Scotland and Wales. It could hardly have been worse. And yet they still achieved 15% of the vote, which is way above their poll ratings. That will give them at least a crumb of comfort and persuade LibDem electoral strategists that all is not lost. Yet.

Iain Dale is a former Conservative Party general election candidate and presents the weekday evening show on LBC Radio.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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54 Comments

  • Jack Holroyde 8th May '11 - 10:39am

    The independent view? My god, these independents are getting very….
    Oh.

    Anyway, the man does speak some sense, which is unusual for Dale.
    I think we need to ‘roll up our sleeves’ (see what I did there?) and start hammering ideology down the electorates neck.
    I think Nick as Health Secretary would be interesting – but TBH, i’m not sure our health policy is strong enough to actually be put into practice. I would prefer to see Nick as home secretary – so he can drive Civil Liberties and Equality into everything we do, but that’s not going to happen.
    May’s sitting comfortably!

  • @Geoffrey Payne Posted 8th May 2011 at 10:46 am

    “There is not much in this article to reassure Lib Dems that we are fulfilling are proper role in this government, which is to curb the nasty right wing excesses of this government”

    Perhaps that phrase highlights one of the problems – you are there to govern and not run around like headless chickens trying to curb this that and the other. I realise that the Party hasn’t been in Gov for a long time, but surely that is politics 101 and whilst you may forget it, the voters won’t.

  • LibDemKitty 8th May '11 - 11:02am

    I agree with Jack… and with Nick, still.

  • Putting Nick Clegg in charge of Health whilst the reforms that weren’t part of the coalition agreement are being pushed through would make the man even more toxic.

    The Tories do need reigning in, that’s exactly what the Lib Dems should be doing, the Tories need to remember that they didn’t win a majority and wouldn’t win a majority if an election was called tomorrow, the last thing the Lib Dems need to do now is to bow their heads and nod timidly at Tory policy that isn’t in the coalition agreement.

  • If after Thursday Lib Dem Mp’s and Ministers support the Tory health reforms and elected Police Commissioners there will be a mass walkout from the parties councillors and activists .I being one of them.

  • Christine Headley 8th May '11 - 11:14am

    A big part of the problem is that the LibDem MPs have made huge efforts not to be tribal in the Coalition. Now they find that it isn’t reciprocated. Surprise, surprise.

    And Nick Clegg’s not-necessarily-DPM job is on constitutional change. Now that the AV question is past, he needs to get his teeth into Lords reform. Sidelining him into a ministry would be a waste of time, and destroy the constitutional reform we were supposed to be bringing in. *If* he were to have full departmental responsibility, it would have to be one of the Big Three – a) I don’t see Osborne, May or Hague giving way gracefully, and b) he would have no time for the job we signed up to the Coalition for him to do.

  • Sandra Folliot 8th May '11 - 11:30am

    “If it were me, I’d give Clegg the job of Health Secretary”
    “send off any LibDem demanding futher concessions on health reform ”
    so what exactly would Nick Clegg be supposed to do as Health Minister? rubber-stamp the White Paper?
    that’d go down well with the public! (let alone the LibDem grassroot that overwhelmingly voted it down at the conference in Sheffield!)

  • Does no one else see a touch of hypocrisy about Clegg today seeking such sweeping changes to the health reforms. After all he rubber stamped them through parliament up to this point. Just for once I’d like a politician to stand up and say they got it wrong at this stage of a Bill, rip it up and start again. I actually think the public would value that, after all in business this happens often and is seen as a strength rather than a weakness.

    The truth is Clegg is the architect of his own downfall. In addition to his breaking of the pledge, his insistance that disagreements within the coalition had to be behind closed doors led many to assume that there was, in fact, total agreement. The danger now is that the Tory power figures behind the throne of Cameron will be seeking an excuse to accuse the Lib dems of breaking good faith and seek to dissolve the coalition. At this point they would probably win, if the polls start to edge their way the danger will increase. In addition to the Lib Dem meltdown, Labour do not as yet have any real policies, or at least not enough to fill a manifesto.

    Even if Labour somehow became the biggest party after a snap election, Clegg, having insisted that he would not work with the previous Labour leader, would I expect be required to fall on his sword as a price for any coalition with Labour.

  • Very interesting article. It shows exactly why the Lib Dems should walk away now. They are regarded by the Conservative’s as children who need to ‘grow up’. Their only chance, apparently, is to toe the Conservative line completely and they might be rewarded, if they are good boys and girls, with some crumbs of credibility from the master’s table.

    In the meantime… back in the real world…

  • I don’t understand how people still continue to say LibDems did well at the general election. They lost seats! It was a *miserable* night for LibDem supporters. Since then we’ve had no choice but to follow this road… we can only blindly walk down it. Last May it seemed important to have the referendum as soon as possible… in retrospect a massive fail.

    The Yes Campaign was awful. Truly awful. I think the result was much more important than we’ve given credit.
    I think more people may have voted LibDem if they saw achieving the referendum as a positive, rather than purely cynical (to increase LibDem seats), move. I hope the LibDems can recover.

  • I forgot to say Ian ” i don,t like David Cameron “but he did play a blinder over AV and the council elections only a fool would say otherwise .
    Andy

  • Martin Lowe 8th May '11 - 12:02pm

    Iain Dale’s idea that the Tories can now call the Lib Dems bluff over any future coalition stresses because ‘they have nowhere else to go’ ignores the Tory predicament.

    Cameron’s last-minute involvement in the ‘No’ campaign at the behest of his backbenchers is merely the act of throwing them a bone – his main aim is to drag the party back to a sustainable electable future is his main aim and he’s using the Lib Dems to do that. If he were to listen to those in the Daily Telegraph, pull the plug on the Coalition and have an election this year it is by no means certain that they would win it. And even if they did, they would soon make themselves unelectable again because of their tendency to drift rightward.

    Lastly, the main thing to be considered is that deficit actions aside, the Lib Dems are having more of their manifesto pledges enacted than the Conservatives are. In essence, people who voted in favour of the Coalition on Thursday were principally voting for Liberal Democrat goals even if they didn’t know it. The Lib Dems have had a positive effect and will continue to do so, and even though some people will always refuse to listen it is imperative that we clearly state those successes that come about as a result of Liberal Democrat policy.

  • Simon McGrath 8th May '11 - 12:03pm

    @Nick “And here we go… Tories arguing that because the AV referendum failed, we should forget about Lords reform.”
    We should forget about it because no-one is interested in it.and it is a minefield of all sorts of issues like the religious representation which will only piss people off.

  • Before the GE the Libdems sold themselves as the anti-Establishment party. Now they are in government they are perceived as part of the Establishment and got a kicking in the elections – quelle surprise!
    BTW Geoffrey Payne – the Tory manifesto was clear about the main point of health reform – GP commissioning.

  • An elected House of Lords was in the Tory manifesto and coalition agreement. It will happen or the Lib Dems will resign from govt.

  • paul barker 8th May '11 - 12:24pm

    A good try but not good enough. The Tories can read The Coalition agreement like anyone else. Reform of The HoL has already been agreed & was in The Conservative Manifesto in any case, its going ahead.
    On the rest of the article I tend to agree. Certainly we should forget The AV campaign, there are no “lessons” to be learned because we are never going to do that again. Lets get on with telling people what we are doing & promoting recovery.

  • I’m all in favour of guest articles from people who do not share our views, but I think there’s a bit too much gratuitous negativity in this one. However, I have broad shoulders like most LibDems who have survived the past year, and I thought the sentence “The LibDems have always been at their happiest when they can chant in unison ‘I protest'” does have some resonance. I accept that I have spent my life in oppositional mode, like most people broadly on the left of politics: it is a comfortable place to have been, and so far the reality of the exercise of power has been quite the opposite. There is a real difference in mindset between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats/Labour/Green here: I cannot imagine that any Conservative is happier being in opposition than in power. In part that is because Conservatives believe that they ought to be the ones running things, whereas the rest of us have a degree of self-doubt, but it is also because we want the way society runs to change whereas although Conservatives do change things they are usually responding to events beyond their immediate control or rolling back changes that have been made by non-Conservative governments (I except Margaret Thatcher from this generalisation). Because we have never had a realistic prospect of power we have only poorly articulated what we would do with it if we did have it, and we have kept our political fire alive by opposing what those in power are doing, rather than by developing a clear and communicable vision of the society we would wish to create.

  • And here we have it in a nutshell, even your Tory partners just see you as enablers who should know there place. Your leadership are truly out of their depths. Of course the Tories are ruthless and calculating. You don’t become the most successful British political party by being otherwise. It just shows how far out of their depths they are, that they try and use this as a political insult.

    @MBoy

    No it was coalition agreement to have a commission on HoL reform. There was no agreement to legislate for it.

  • Oh dear, the wriggling of the Tories now to preserve the status quo in every part of Parliament is astonishing…

    Conservative manifesto 2010: “We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current house of Lords”

    Cameron was elected on a “Change” platform to clean up politics. If he breaks his promises on this he will end up in the same problems as Clegg.

  • David Pollard – quite right. I can’t think of a form of words that Nick could use at this stage that could mitigate the damage he has done, but just for him to acknowledge the crucial difference between a personal pledge and a policy would be a start.

  • Yellow Bird 8th May '11 - 12:38pm

    Some months ago, there were calls that Nick Clegg would be well suited to the position of Foreign Secretary. This proposal might useful be revived if the way forward is for him to have ‘a real portfolio’.

  • @ Jedibeeftrix “Put him in charge of health, or something else he can’t do too much damage in.”

    Behave! Putting him in charge of health would be a complete disaster for the Lib Dems, the proposed health reforms are going to be one big area of anger, let the Tories take the heat for that.

  • MBoy

    The point is the Tories are reportedly saying that Cameron won’t use the Parliament Act to force Lords reform through. If the Lords vote against it, he can very easily say that the government has tried to “build a consensus,” but that evidently a consensus doesn’t exist. And he can quite rightly say that he hasn’t broken the letter of the Coalition Agreement either.

    The other point that the opponents of reform are going to make is that the electorate has just rejected a change in the voting system for the Commons by a huge majority, but that the Lib Dems are trying to bring in a proportional voting system for the Lords without any opportunity at all for the electorate to express an opinion on it. To be honest, I think that’s a fair point.

  • The AV referendum aside, I don’t think the local elections went as bad as I thought they would be and the share of the vote (15%) was far higher then I thought we would get.

  • Anthony Dunn 8th May '11 - 2:39pm

    “Master and servant”…. How very kind of you Iain to show us our place in the scheme of things: to do as we are told and take the hits for the Tories!

    Err, I think not. Starting now, let’s come out into the open that there is not a snow-ball’s chance in hell of something that featured in NEITHER election manifesto (NHS “top down reform”) taking place. After playing the man rather than the ball during the AV referendum, the Tories are now overdue their own “learning experience” and that is soon going to take the form of sticking Lansley’s head on a pike-staff together with his so-called “reform” package which is Tory code for partial privatisation of substantial elements of NHS provision. Thereafter, elected police commissioners: GONE! Boundary revisions: OVERTURNED!

    Really Iain, if you play hardball it is astonishingly arrogant, hubristic and (dare I say it) naive of you to imagine that you wont then invite a dose of reciprocity. Tribal and ruthless… Let’s see how much you like it.

  • Anthony Dunn 8th May '11 - 2:46pm

    Oh, and one other thing whilst I am at it: as a firm believer in the essentially conservative notion of “No taxation without representation” (heard that anywhere before?) I am now planning on writing to Gideon about reducing my tax contribution to HM exchequer on the basis of 1/4 of a vote = 1/4 of a tax bill. I would advocate every other LibDem member and supporter to start bombarding the Tories with demands for tax rebates.

    If we’ve no say, then we just wont pay!

  • Coalition Sceptic 8th May '11 - 2:54pm

    This quote from “a very senior Lib Dem” in Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer article today struck a particular chord with me.

    “David Cameron has made a big, big mistake… We’re no longer doing business with someone whom we think is honest and decent. We’re dealing with someone whom we think is Robert Maxwell”.

    Whether Iain intended this or not I see little in his article to dissuade me that the above view of Cameron and Osborne is mistaken.

  • Seen this?

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/av/now-cameron-turns-attack-on-lib-dem-plans-for-elected-house-of-lords-2280328.html

    “Senior Tory figures have told The Independent that David Cameron will not support Mr Clegg to force through Liberal Democrat plans to create an elected House of Lords – despite a commitment to reform in the Coalition agreement.”

  • @Jedibeeftrix The NHS reforms are not part of the coalition agreement, they are purely Tory ideology, a Tory needs to take responsibility for this, if a Lib Dem does this then Ed Milliband is going to get a boost to his support he simply doesn’t deserve. Lib Dems taking the heat for Tory ideology is part of the reason the Lib Dems got pasted on Thursday, enough is enough.

  • “HoL reform is in the coalition agreement, the NHS package (in its current state) is not.”

    But it has been formally approved by the Lib Dems through the procedure established by the coalition agreement.

    So it’s difficult to see on what basis Clegg can now turn round and say it’s unacceptable unless major changes are made.

  • Outside the Westminster bubble, most people couldn’t give a fig about Lords reform. In good times, perhaps, but I don’t see a mass movement to reform the Lords.

    Right now people care about the NHS, their jobs, greedy bankers taking us all for a ride, the attacks on the sick/disabled/poor, the economy, etc. LDs need to get out more and try to connect with the common man instead of telling him he is “wrong” or “doesn’t get” your policies. The communication is fine – we hear the message. We’ve just turned off because we don’t like your new message.

  • Lorna Spenceley 8th May '11 - 7:25pm

    WTF is this doing on LDV? What, exactly, is Iain Dale ‘independent’ of except a liberal bone in his body? Gross editorial misjudgement, today of all days. Take it away, and don’t bring it back, please.

  • Patrick Smith 8th May '11 - 8:16pm

    Iain Dale does a good Blog but he was once a Tory candidate but failed to get elected.What was it that Oscar Wilde about critics?.Face to face with the voters is a different world and it was his Party Leader who reneged on his pledge to refraind from the day to day bonhomie of the `AV’ `Yes’/`No’ campaign.

    I still rate Nick Clegg as highly as ever as L/D Leader and sharpest thorn in the flesh of the Tory hierarchy for the duration of this 5 year Parliament.

    It has to last for the full term to pull the British Economy fully out of the mire, as it was languishing with a daily debt of £400 million and when ordinary families begin to experience a `feeling better’ factor with an upturn in the worst off family economies Liberal votes will return..More voters will realise that it is due to the skilled negotiations of the L/D top table team that the lowest paid can now benefit from no tax on the first £10K of earned income and pensioners will receive income related increases in future and all improve the standard of life for 10 million people.

    Iain Dale doen`t want to tell us that ther are 12 large urban cities in the north of england where the Tories have virtually no presence and do not have Councillors as they have remained almost entirely rejected by the electorate for decades.In may parts including Glasgow, Tories have traditionally had a bucket of spit dumped on them by the canny voters, for years.

    It is important for Nick Clegg as DPM to continue to apply his considerable gifts and several languages to create the Liberal lines incisely and indelibly to the British Electorate in his reforming policies that will improve Britain and wipe out the burden of national deficit.

    Marketing better `Liberal Dem.Wins’ in `Coalition Government’ must be the new taskmaster.

  • David Allen 9th May '11 - 12:36am

    Dale is blatantly enjoying taking the p*ss out of the Lib Dems, and it is amazing so many Lib Dems still cannot see it. Put Clegg in charge of health? So that he can once again employ his unique talent for promoting key Tory policy changes and taking the blame for them?

  • Thanks, Patrick, for a note of practical sanity, and for advocating a tactic I have been pushing for months.

  • Hmmm, the author of this seems to be having fun at LD expense. Rather insensitive at this time…

    I’m afraid that Phase 2 of the Tory coalition strategy seems to have started already. John Redwood was on R4 Today this AM and, cutting through his usual passive-aggression, the spin was basically: “Well, these LDs wanted the NHS reforms – Clegg’s signature is on the paper, don’t you know! we’re just pragmatic Conservatives, they’re the ideological ones… – but, if they want to u-turn & wobble because they’ve poll trouble, well, we’ll just have to put up with that – no backbone, these chaps”.

    Phase 1 was alienation of LD voters by hugging LDs close, making sure they were really identified with the cuts, broke a key pledge & merged with the tories in the voters’ minds. Phase 2 is basically discrediting the LDs in govt, i.e. ‘important issues need to be addressed but we can’t work with these LDs!’ The resulting Phase 3 is Cameron calling an election – at a time of his choosing – for a fresh mandate ‘for the good of the country’. Tactical voters desert the LDs, leading to the 2012-17 Tory majority govt.

    There seem to be no easy answers to this. If LD MPs keep discipline, they lose their identity; protest and Dave can call an election… Maybe ex tactical voters could be persuaded to hold their noses but, after tuition fees, I wouldn’t bet on it. I suppose if you’e going to get hammered whatever you do, leaving sooner would be better than later, i.e. no MPs but still (sort of) distinctive Vs no MPs & universally seen as crypto-tories….

  • toryboysnevergrowup 11th May '11 - 2:16pm

    “I’d give Clegg the job of Health Secretary”

    Good to see you’ve kept your sense of humour since you stopped blogging Iain – my guess us that such a position would just abount finish him off.

    I don’t know if it has struck anyone that even if you leave his politics out of it Clegg just isn’t very good at his job. I’m afraid there are lots of signs that Cameron is an infinitely more able politician. For a start Clegg should have asked for LibDem only departments if he had any sense whatsover – as is common practice with coalitions elsewhere.

    PS Iain Dale may be many things, including quite a decent bloke for all the rubbish he has to put up with, but Independent is the last thing I would call him.

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