Nick Clegg: I won’t prop up a minority government without a coalition

Nick Clegg speaking York InEurope Some rights reserved by Liberal DemocratsIn an interview with Anne McEvoy in yesterday’s Sunday Times (£), Nick Clegg makes it clear that he has no interest in the Liberal Democrats keeping a minority government in office with out a full coalition after the next election:

For the first time, Clegg is explicitly ruling out any kind of loose-pact arrangement, like the short-lived Lib-Lab one in the 1970s or variants on “confidence and supply” arrangements, a political anoraks’ phrase, whereby a smaller party provides support in parliamentary votes for one of the main parties, but without any official deal on ministerial jobs or influence. No, says Clegg: if they want his party, they need to put up with coalition influence — and, by implication, him in a big role. “I want to remain in government. We’ve only just got started and a 10-year period for us in government means we could make a major contribution. The last thing I want to do is give up this job.”

For all that he needs to get the party to agree with that approach, I can see that it’s a sensible one. Why would you want to be in a situation where you got all of the blame and none of the credit? Although minority government worked in Scotland, I am not sure that the parties and culture at Westminster is conducive to stable minority government. What’s interesting, though, is that Anne McEvoy points out that neither Labour nor Conservative want a full deal with Clegg precisely because of the extent of the Liberal Democrats’ influence on this Coalition:

Ten years of Deputy Clegg is not a prospect that will gladden the hearts of Tories, who blame him for watering down Conservative rule.  Meanwhile, seasoned Labour figures mutter that having seen Clegg hold his coalition partner hostage in some areas, a minority Labour government would be a better option than an alliance with Clegg if they fall just short of outright victory next May. Clegg snorts derisively that this is “swashbuckling stuff, but when it comes down to it a minority government would be unstable”. This may be true — but, unsurprisingly, the Tories and Labour deem it presumptuous that he assumes they can only make it work with him in tow.

There’s a rather uncomfortable coincidence of words and pictures. Clegg stands with a butchers’ apprentice over a pig while talking about how he can add spine to Labour on the economy and heart to the Tories on social issues – the stronger economy, fairer society riff. I would have liked to see a bit more depth about what makes him tick, though. We learn that from his mother he gets “a degree of scepticism about the entrenched class configurations in British society” and that education is one of his passions, but not that much more. There’s no real narrative about why he’s a Liberal Democrat, about our story as a party and the ideas that might tug at people’s heartstrings and persuade them to vote for us. We need a bit more passion to come through as well as the pragmatism. When he does that passion, he does it brilliantly as anyone who listens to him taking down those who oppose, for example decent sex education and increasing women’s access to emergency contraception

We know that Nick is really passionate about improving mental health, about shared parental leave and in helping disadvantaged kids in school. None of these are covered in detail. In fact, what could have been a great section on why it’s important to help kids from a deprived background ended up as a slanging match with former Tory Special Adviser Dominic Cummings. McEvoy had contacted him for a comment on Nick and he obliged with an abusive rant, the highlights of which were calling the Deputy PM revolting, sanctimonious and dishonest. When confronted with this, Nick had a go at the Tories in the Department of Education:

I spent my time getting rid of ideas that these over-excited, juvenile characters lurking in some back office dreamt up on the back of a fag packet.” Although he exempts Gove from the personal  attacks, Clegg criticises the “undisciplined teenagers” around the education secretary (in fact, Cummings is just a few years short of Clegg, at 42). Gove, Clegg says pointedly, signed off the school meals plan and agreed to all the other allegedly gimmicky schools ideas.

It’s not a very edifying exchange of views. Now Nick may well have talked at length about his policy initiatives – it can be hard to shut him up about the things he cares about, which is a good thing – but it is a shame that there is not much of it in the finished interview.

I wonder who told McEvoy this:

Some internal critics think he has been slow to professionalise the rickety Lib Dem apparatus.

We are light years ahead of where we were in 2007 when he became leader. Most of that’s down to the work of party chief executive Tim Gordon and his forward looking team who have done so much to professionalise our operations and drag some of them to the present day.  Where I think there is some truth is:

Clegg’s own praetorian guard consists of a chief of staff and media aides brought with him from opposition, interspersed with an array of corporate professional types, some of whom have stayed for relatively short periods. He can be a “very warm” boss, says one of the departed souls, yet there are complaints that staff outside his inner circle are not given a say. “It’s the court of the mini-Sun King,” jibes one. “Nick likes to be the smartest, but he needs more people around him with as much or more nous than him.”

He certainly does need to listen more to Liberal Democrats on the ground and not just those from the Westminster Bubble. He’s getting better at his relations with the party and is greeted with much more genuine warmth and respect these days, but he he needs to listen more to party members who have the expertise to help shape the party’s strategy.

In many ways, this interview falls short in that it doesn’t really get across the main messages of the current election campaign, nor does it really show what makes Nick or the Liberal Democrats tick. That may not be his fault, but it is frustrating.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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30 Comments

  • David Allen 28th Apr '14 - 1:21pm

    The choice is between real influence and Ministerial co-option.

    In a loose pact, the minority party has a lot of power, if more negative than positive. If the majority leader tries to play unanticipated tricks – like trebling tuition fees, imposing a top-down “reform” on the NHS, or breaking agreements on electoral reform for instance – then the minority can threaten to walk. During the Lib-Lab pact, Labour knew they couldn’t try any tricks.

    In a coalition, this power is bargained away in exchange for Ministerial positions. Or at least it was in 2010. That’s why Osborne, to quote his words, “paid the top price for the Turkish carpet”. He wanted the party he bought to stay bought. They did.

    That’s Clegg’s choice. Is it the right one?

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Apr '14 - 1:23pm

    Whether to go into government as a junior coalition partner or have some sort of support agreement for a minority government of another party depends on circumstances. That is the problem with all this “what would you do if there was a ‘hung’ Parliament?” questioning. So often it really does depend on the situation which won’t be known until we get there. The obvious example is the way the question was always phrased as if we would be making a choice of “who would you jump into bed with?” (itself a very loaded analogy, so one we should slap down when it is used) as if we would have a free choice, but when it came to it, we didn’t, because there was only one possibility that gave a stable majority government.

    I would say the sort of “supply and confidence” support for a minority government which Clegg is rejecting here would work well under circumstances where we are going up in public support, and can therefore expect the public’s support if we stand firm, and an increased share of the vote in an early general election. Being outside the government and threatening to bring it down would put us in a strong position and make it likely it concedes to us if we had no reason to be scared of the consequences of an early general election.

    However, if we have reason to be scared of an early general election, if it looks like the public would blame us for the instability caused by a minority government and be unsympathetic to us pushing our pet policies in that way, then the behind-the-scenes minor influence of being a junior coalition partner may be the better way to push our policies. It does not mean, however, that we should hide the fact that a government in which we are a junior coalition partner is a very different thing from a government in which we are the lead party. Being a junior coalition partner is NOT something to rejoice about, it’s a “miserable little compromise”. We should have made that clear from the start. Nothing wrong with compromises, it’s what democracy is about, but nothing wrong with being a bit miserable about being forced by circumstances (i.e. how people voted and the distortions of the electoral system) to accept a compromise which is a long way from your ideal.

  • “Why would you want to be in a situation where you got all of the blame and none of the credit?”

    Fair comment, except this describes coalition life to a tee. I’m not sure the nature of the arrangement makes a great deal of difference to a wide-eyed minority party dealing with arguably the wiliest political machine in the western world.

  • Its the right decision. A confidence and supply situation would create tremendous amount of uncertainty, a full coalition is much better for the country.

    Its not surprising the other parties are saying they want to rule on their own, even if they don’t win an outright majority. They’re hardly going to say ‘we want a coalition’ at this point.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Apr '14 - 2:57pm

    Lib Dems should never leave government, unless they are setting up a new one. Why should people accept lower pay and sit in opposition.

  • David Evans 28th Apr '14 - 3:08pm

    Gareth, After the total mess Nick made of it last time, do you really believe that, in all circumstances, a full coalition is best for the long term good of the country. If so could you give us your reasons?

  • Are we in dreamworld. How many MP’s will we have, given the present leadership , perhaps 10!!!! We need to forget about further coalition, the next election will , unfortunately for us, be a straight contest between Conservatives and Labour and we will be squeezed hard by BOTH.

  • I’d say that confidence and supply was absolutely the wrong choice in 2010, when the country was still reeling from financial collapse and the entire economy was still very much on the downwards swing into recession.

    But in 2015, assuming this year’s more positive indications continue, will the country have as much need of a strong, unified government that is locked in for the five year term future? I would say no.

    So I would be more inclined towards ending the coalition with the Conservatives, and doing an confidence and supply deal with them if they should happen to be trying to run a minority administration. If its Labour, I’d say we go with negotiating a full coalition, but be more willing to walk out if they won’t give ground.

  • “Why would you want to be in a situation where you got all of the blame and none of the credit?”
    This is exactly the question people ask about the current coalition.

  • David Allen 28th Apr '14 - 4:30pm

    Matthew Huntbach rightly points out that the power of a minority party in a loose pact situation depends on the prevailing circumstances. If the minority party is obviously scared of the consequences should it choose to walk out, then the minority party largely loses (if perhaps only temporarily) its power to influence its larger ally. To a considerable extent, the same also applies in a formal coalition.

    It follows that the larger party should aim to keep its smaller ally permanently scared. The Tories did that brilliantly. First they created artificial panic about our financial position and wound it up to fever pitch on election day, with bogus fears of a collapse in the bond markets helping to strongarm us into a premature deal. Then they inflicted a policy drubbing as quickly as possible, the tuition fees debacle serving to make sure our poll ratings took a nosedive and put the fear of annihilation into us. Then they tied us into a five-year programme so that we couldn’t do much even if our ratings recovered. Then they stitched us up over AV, because that’s what the Bullingdon Boys do with plebs. The Bullingdon is a war game club, a play-preparation for life as a top dog, with a top-dog’s urbane smile and a top-dog’s vicious bite. The other thing the Bullingdons do with plebs, of course, is buy their subservience by paying generous compensation. They did that too (see my previous post about “paying the top price for the Turkish carpet”).

    A looser pact wouldn’t have been a panacea, but it would have given us a better chance of fighting the onslaught, always assuming our leadership had wanted to. For example, we could have pointed out that stable government takes two to agree upon, and that whilst we would have to make concessions over tuition fees, so also would the Tories, or they would risk being blamed by the public for the government’s collapse. In that situation, we would have had some leverage: with the noose of a coalition agreement around our necks, we didn’t.

  • Paul Pettinger 28th Apr '14 - 6:59pm

    Towards the end of his last speech the day before he died and soon after receiving yet more death threats Martin Luther King said: ‘Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.’

    In his 2010 autumn Conference speech Nick Clegg said that by 2015 society would be free and fair. There is no doubt in my mind that by deciding the Party will reject everything but Government posts after May 2015 Nick Clegg is as equally motivated by the interests of humanity as Dr King.

  • Leader of the party since 2007 and after grinding the party into the dust does he apologise?
    Does he come up with an inspiring message for the party faithful?
    Does he set out the reasons to vote Liberal Democrat this May?

    No, he says —
    …….“I want to remain in government. We’ve only just got started and a 10-year period for us in government means we could make a major contribution. The last thing I want to do is give up this job.”

    You may not want to give up this job, Mr Clegg. But it is not just about you is it?

    Or do you think the rest of the party has no say in these things?

    He just gets worse doesn’t he?
    He hasn’t got a clue.

  • Paul Pettinger 28th Apr '14 - 9:53pm

    This should make our MPs again think for whose interest Nick Luther Clegg jr seeks to advance. As I infer above, it’s not theirs.

  • I don’t know Dominic Cummings but his comment about Clegg : “He won’t do the hard work to get policy right – all he cares about is his image” does ring true. Remember how he signed off the White Paper on Lansley’s NHS reforms without even reading it?

  • …. And explains the mess that the Tuition Fees policy turned out to be (what policy??)

    …. And his proposals for Lords Reform…… 15 year terms

  • Paul In Twickenham 28th Apr '14 - 10:58pm

    Report on The Guardian website: “David Cameron to refuse coalition without EU referendum backing: Prime minister says partner would need to sign up to an in-out referendum by the end of 2017”

    That’s a flat-out statement that an in-out referendum will be a red line for the Conservatives in any future coalition negotiations.

    So Mr. Clegg is saying that he wants another 5 years in coalition – at the end of which time he will have failed to deliver fair votes, will have failed to deliver constitutional reform, will have failed to modernize Parliament, will have instructed the party’s MP’s to vote for secret courts, will have destroyed decades of hard work and commitment by dedicated activists up and down the country, and will probably have managed to take us out of the EU. But – oh my! – doesn’t that ministerial Jaguar have a lovely new-car smell.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Apr '14 - 12:19am

    John Tilley

    Does he set out the reasons to vote Liberal Democrat this May?

    No, he says —
    …….“I want to remain in government. We’ve only just got started and a 10-year period for us in government means we could make a major contribution. The last thing I want to do is give up this job.”

    You may not want to give up this job, Mr Clegg. But it is not just about you is it?

    Indeed. This continual use of the phrase “in government” and reference to the current government as if is a Liberal Democrat government which is what the words “We’ve only just started” come across as, just bolsters the attack on us “Vote Liberal Democrat, get Tory”. By going on and on about how wonderful this government is and how he wants more of it, which even if he didn’t say is how his words will be interpreted by most people, he is destroying our party, because he is making absolutely sure that anyone who isn’t a Tory or at least sympathetic to the Tories won’t vote for us i.e. most of our previous voters.

    He COULD have said that he would like to be “in government” with many more Liberal Democrat MPs because he has been frustrated at how little he could achieve with the current Parliamentary balance. But he didn’t. The man is a menace, he is destroying our party.

  • @Paul in Twickenham – No, that was Mr Cameron announcing his imminent retirement since failure to win an overall majority means his back-benchers will have his head on a plate – presuming that is they don’t demand it before the election.

  • http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/apr/28/david-cameron-coalition-eu-referendum

    Both Pauls
    Or evidence that Cameron has seen the Conservative Party private polling ?
    If the number of Liberal Democrat MPs after the General Election is so small – they will not be worth doing a deal with. Clegg can be “pocketed” or ignored, or both.

    What will all those former Liberal Democrat MPs do after they have lost their seats?
    Especially as all the best lobbyist jobs will have been hoovered by the dozens of Special Advisors who are already grooming their contacts. They have the advantage that they do not have to wait for the slaughter on Polling Day 2015; they can jump ship at any point in the next 49 weeks.

  • I am completely astonished by the arrogance of those that lead the party, it is fortunate that we live in a democracy where the voters actually get to decide, I think the last 4 years were a mistake made by voters who believed in politicians, I seriously doubt those same voters will make the same mistake again.

    There are 7-10 million sick and disabled people and their carers who are very angry at what has been an caustic attack on their ability to live a reasonable life, do you really believe those people will vote for more of the same, free and fair indeed but not if you are one of the poor or vulnerable in society.
    Jim

  • So if we’re down to twenty MPs and the Tories or Labour are a handful of seats short of a majority, we’ll demand a place in cabinet?

  • Paul Pettinger 29th Apr '14 - 2:54pm

    John Tilley – a good point. Few former MPs are likely to get a peerage either, as the Party has had so many picks during this Parliament. And yes, the public relations jobs are already being snapped up by former SPADs. I fear some former MPs will look at Mark Oaten at the Fur Trade Federation with envy.

  • Nigel Jones 29th Apr '14 - 7:42pm

    I was annoyed when Danny said last week the Liberal Democrats would not support a minority government; now I am annoyed with Nick.
    They can say what they think, but how dare they decide in advance of proper party discussions on the issue what the party stand is!!!

  • Presumably because they intend to do as they wish without regard to the opinion of the party membership. It wouldn’t be the first time.

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 29th Apr '14 - 7:57pm

    There is of course the nightmare scenario for members of the Labour Party, such as myself, which is that after the 2015 G.E. Labour are the largest single party, but the combined seats of of the Tories and a small number of Lib Dems are sufficient to create a Lib Dem/ Tory Coalition . I believe that in those circumstances, Cameron, as PM, could go to the Queen and tell her that he is able to form a government, despite Labour being the largest single party. I don’t think that’s going to happen of course, but it does keep me awake at night.

  • Adam Robertson 30th Apr '14 - 12:26am

    I think Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander are assuming that the Liberal Democrats, are going to be in position, in where we can have real influence on decisions in the next parliament. However, Nick Clegg is becoming like the British Version of Winston Peters, the New Zealand First Party leader in New Zealand, in where he will be ‘kingmaker’ with either Labour or the Conservatives, as along, as he has the ‘baubles of office’ i.e. Deputy Prime Minister job.

    I feel this approach will backfire with the electorate because we are going to be seen as the ‘moderation’ party or ‘dilution’ party, in where, we diluting Labour or Conservative policy, without offering any Lib Dem policy. At the minute, our ideology is missing from the party ethos, which is Liberalism. Apart from successes, such as the Pupil Premium, it seems that Nick Clegg and co, are more content with the ‘baubles of office’, while not offering the electorate, a liberal vision for the country. In where, the Labour and the Conservatives, are becoming more authoritarian, where is the liberal voice within the debate. I can’t hear apart from Julian Huppert, on occasions, regarding personal data.

    For the 2015 election, I want us to offer liberty to people on the basis of John Stuart Mill, in where liberty is given to people – unless they cause harm to another person. I accept the definition of harm has changed since the 19th Century, but the same principle still applies. Offer the electorate, a liberal vision, instead of being seen as a ‘moderator’ party – which is all about dilution rather than ambition. If we are not bold, then we are likely to get knocked down completely in the election.

  • Bill le Breton 24th Apr '15 - 3:40pm

    Look at this one year old posting!!!!

    Just thought I’d direct people back to this one year old posting (almost to the day). It will save someone at LDV Towers writing one for today’s news, and may save those who posted comments last year from repeating themselves.

    We are about to a) commit to a new Coalition (even if that were with Labour) (even if that were with the DUP ) and, if it happens to be with the Tories, we are going to purchase this by committing to an in/out referendum on Eurpean Union membership that will probably i) inhibit investment between now and 2017, and ii) lead the way to a Brexit.

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