Opinion: The next 5 years will bring a much greater appreciation of what we did in coalition

For the last seven years, I have had the privilege of working for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.

So I’m sure you can understand that the last 48 hours have been pretty tough. Whatever you think of the party, our politics or the decisions we took, there are currently thousands of individuals who have given blood, sweat and tears in the name of our cause who have been bluntly and brutally rejected at the ballot box.

It is a tragedy for the party and for the political cause we believe in: the belief that Britain is at its best when it is open-minded, open-hearted, tolerant and generous.

My job until Friday morning was to be Nick’s speechwriter. It’s the best job I have ever had and will probably ever have. I cannot begin to express my admiration for a man who did the right thing, took a vicious public lashing for it every day and took it all with good grace, good humour and the conviction to keep going because we had a vital job to do.

The last piece of work I was involved in was his resignation speech. I watched him deliver it from the back of the room, stood with good friends and colleagues who have spent the last few years working tirelessly for a man we admire and a cause we believe in.
We were all choking back the tears, a task made harder by the TV news cameras pointed at us as we did it.

I don’t know what the next five years will bring but I suspect the contrast with the last five will bring a much greater appreciation of the role we played in coalition.

We saved people’s jobs. How can you not be proud of that?

Same-sex marriage. Ending child detention. Giving more money to schools for the poorest children. No one will ever take that away from us.

I am extremely proud of what we did and of the resilience and good humour with which we did it.

As a Liberal, I’m distraught about what the Conservatives may do for the next five years without us to restrain them. As a Democrat, I know I must accept the verdict of the people. The job of rebuilding British liberalism starts here.

* Phil Reilly was Nick Clegg's speechwriter and Director of Communications for the Party until November 2017

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20 Comments

  • Jane Ann Liston 9th May '15 - 3:35pm

    I think you’re probably right, Phil. History will be kind to us, so let’s hope there are enough of us left to appreciate it.

  • Phil, Nick’s speech inspired me to join the party. Thank you.

  • Helen Quenet 9th May '15 - 3:59pm

    Bloodied, tearful, and deeply hurt but still proud to be a Liberal.

  • Ruth Bright 9th May '15 - 4:04pm

    Nick was courageous to do the whole Call Clegg thing. Admirable. But maybe some of us would feel his (personal) pain a bit more if those of us who suffered grievous losses last year had not been lectured by Danny Alexander and others about how we had failed to get our message across and where we worked we won. Not true.

    Something like this catastrophe was predicted but those who predicted it were dismissed as flat-earth nutters. The “stop the world we want to get off” brigade. Two recent leaders in the Times have praised Nick Clegg for bringing his leftie activist base to face reality. Some reality.

  • ADWilliams welcome! Although you’re not supposed to exist 😉

  • Phil – great work on the speech. I think Nick always came across well – perhaps the best of the three main party leaders (in the last parliament) – but to no avail.

    I noticed this headline today, and maybe we’ll see more like it, as the Tories lurch enthusiastically to the right: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/may/09/theresa-may-revive-snoopers-charter-lib-dem-brakes-off-privacy-election

    So maybe people will pine for us. But more likely, I suspect, they will still remember us mainly for signing up to the Tory cuts programme, breaking our tuition fees promise, etc. We may need some sort of Clause 28 moment to draw a line under the last five years.

  • Peter Chegwyn 9th May '15 - 10:16pm

    I have to agree with Ruth Bright on this one. Some of us were warning from 2010 onwards what the electoral consequences of broken promises and bad messaging would be. We were ignored at best, vilified at worst, by Nick and those around him. Atrocious local and Euro election results in 2011, 2012, 2013 & 2014 all gave a warning of what was to come but still we were told ‘Don’t worry, it will all come right in the end’.

    Well it didn’t! And now we have a Commons presence smaller than at any time since 1970. Even in 1979 at the end of the Lib / Lab Pact we did better than last Thursday. Worse even than our demise is the prospect of 5 years of majority Conservative Government with all that will mean for our public services and those who rely on them.

    Obviously we need to re-build from the grass-roots up. We should start by giving priority to re-gaining hundreds of the local council seats we have lost since 2010. But we must also learn from the Conservative campaign, their ruthless targetting and their messaging which was far superior to our own, especially in the final few crucial days.

    Hopefully those with long experience of winning elections under all circumstances won’t be ignored by the leadership in future. Hopefully those at the top will listen more to those at the bottom. Hopefully those who think we can win just through the ‘air war’ will realise how important the ‘ground war’ is as well. Hopefully we’ll see a return to a radical ‘community politics’ campaigning approach where we listen to and work with our local communities instead of preaching to them from above.

    If we re-engage with our local communities and start campaigning for positive liberal ideals again instead of having to defend the worst excesses of a Conservative-led Government then we can recover and more quickly than many people predict.

    Remember, we were almost dead and buried in 1970. Within a couple of years we were winning a string of sensational parliamentary by-election victories. The same happened just a couple of years after we were written-off in 1979. I, for one, am looking forward to next year’s local council elections where we can hammer the heartless Tories without having one hand tied behind our backs.

    The future for our country may be bleak under a majority Conservative Government but the prospects for our own party are better than many people might think.

  • When people start really not liking the new government, it might be worth pointing out that one party majority rule is a really big problem, and that electoral reform is a permanent solution to that. Start talking to people about the downside of being able to vote out an MP that you don’t like, such as how that can let a party you cannot stand take all the power, and then hang on to it indefinately.

  • The Tory government, which is without doubt a disaster for the country, with its massive spending cuts that will rip the soul out of our communities, fortunately has a wafer thin majority. Just a few by-election losses – only 10 needed- and if the anti-austerity parties stick together and vote together, the Tories will be unable to carry their program through. So talk of 5 years of Tory government is a bit wide of the mark – they’ll be lucky if they get past the second year. However for me the one policy we can never be proud of is supporting the Bedroom Tax – how that fits in with Liberal values is a mystery to me. But many of the seats we have lost have only small majorities against us, so can easily be reversed, if we pursue the right policies from here on in – don’t despair

  • I have been reading everything I can about the election and see a few conclusions. I have always been pro lib but unconnected to the mechanics of a political party, just a voter. Perhaps not a typical one, because most seem to know hardly anything about politics. It may be the modern liberal party (last 50 years, I mean) has always been a party for political devotees, and part of its disaster now is that it has abandoned such people. Liberal voters have never been people who just believe spin.

    As to the coalition, it was an unmitigated disaster for liberals. For anyone who believes a conservative government is bad for Britain, it was equally a disaster, because it has now delivered two. The idea that the coalition saved the country from some vague imminent collapse is nonsense, and all the voters out there who arent conservatives anyway, think so too. Consider the proposition for a moment, and it has to be true. Any party that says it saved the nation by placing in power one of its rivals, is a joke. Its a difficult proposition in a PR election, and nearing suicide under ours, as we have seen.

    At this moment in time I do not believe the future will view Clegg et al better. While I have read lots of posts on here about the libs trying to reposition themselves to the right, i quite honestly believe conservatives, and Cameron in particular, are trying to position themselves to the left. Cameron has ruthlessly used the liberals to impose a softer line on the conservative party than at least parts of it wanted to take. if the liberals had not been there, he would have done this anyway. He would have suffered from the infighting and very possibly lost this election, if he survived this far. His position was far more precarious after the last election, so I dont know how that would have panned out with regard to staying a full term, but the debate point by point on policy would have been conducted in public, making it clear exactly where everyone stood.

    The conservatives stood five years ago on a policy of austerity and labour financial incompetence. The labour incompetence was bunk, they did as well as anyone else might reasonably have done. However, this was the conservatives selling point for the electorate, and is a very traditional one, tell people your opponents are useless. This left Cameron the winner, but running on a ticket of cuts. he didnt want cuts. he knew cuts were the wrong thing to do. Or more precisely, yes, austerity was the right policy, but it was also labour policy, and conservatives had been forced to top the bid by overclaiming on what was needed. He tried it, we nearly had another recession. Liberals gave Cameron the excuse to reverse his policy, in fact revert pretty much to Labours plans rather than his parties, without having to admit he was wrong. He went into this election still claiming he was right. Liberals said he was right too. So whats the point of electing liberals?

    Cameron just gave a speech calling for one nation, inclusive, government. Maybe it was spin. Maybe it wasnt. maybe its time to finally ditch that albatross around his neck which is austerity. Expect Cameron to Move into the political territory formerly occupied by Tony Blair. Expect a settlement with the SNP, maybe even a working relationship for government. Liberals joined in conservatives attacking labour for even contemplating this? Attacking the concept of coalition?

    the conservatives problem in 2010 was that labour got it right on the economy. World events out of their control blew up in their face. Conservatives wanted to win, so they had to be different, even though different was the wrong policy. Liberals helped them track the windy path needed for a complete U turn without seeming to make one.

  • Problem is we didn’t demand electoral reform. That would have changed UK politics (although probably not as dramatically as some assumed). There was a whisper Gordon Brown was prepared to offer that in 2010, albeit AV which is slightly less bad than FPTP. Perhaps as I thought at the time, we should have pursued a coalition of the Left back then. But now we run the risk of death as a party, with the Greens taking our place.

  • Helen Dudden 10th May '15 - 9:28am

    Yes of course you will be remembered for your ability to.support the suffering, It is going to be a disaster for the working class in society. Not the Helen driving the BMW late at night, the Helen who feels for the suffering that is about to be made worse.

  • Seyed Razavi 10th May '15 - 11:32am

    I thought Nick’s resignation speech was well done. He was in my mind, the most fluent speaker of the party leaders overall.

    Shame he spent most of the 5 years in government with the chains of a broken promise around his neck. I don’t think the offer to scrap tuition fees should have been made as part of the manifesto – it seems to me asking well-off graduates to pay partly for their education is right. But to break the key promise of a manifesto within a month of joining with the Tories, was a mortal blow. At least now the slow death is over.

    In any case, that is done and the lessons of the election don’t seem to point to moving the party further to the left. It seems the main lesson is that the party has to stand for more than merely being a voice of moderation. Its time to make a real case for liberalism in our communities and country. The people joining the party now seem to indicate there are politically engaged individuals who believe in liberal values. If the party can capitalise on that energy rather than gorging on the mistakes of the recent past, it might come back even stronger than before.

  • Some top speeches no doubt, some terrible media management too, but politics is momentary and it’s all in the past. It’s not true to say they’ll miss you when you’re gone – they’ll be too pre-occupied with the current political landscape. Whilst I’m surprised you haven’t learnt any lessons about predicting the future from what just happened, I’m sure you won’t have much trouble finding a job!

    The main job of the party now is to re-engage centre left voters like me. They said they could do it without us, but that’s clearly not the case because we are the lions share of the party vote. The only way to do that is to forget about coalitions and Nick Clegg, and to start listening to ideas for building something better. To its former voters the party resembles Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazar; the first phase is to remove the hands from the face.

    To me this isn’t tragic, it’s the first chance to stop the rot. For as long as liberals hope history will be kind they ensure an unfixable present; history will record the “I’m Sorry” video, and little more. A 5 second clip of that will be used in TV programmes in the future as a brief explanation of what happened, with words like cuts, broken promises and tuition fees over the top; a segue between how things were and how they are now.

  • Peter Watson 10th May '15 - 2:05pm

    @Seyed Razavi “to break the key promise of a manifesto within a month of joining with the Tories, was a mortal blow.”
    It was not about the manifesto policy to scrap tuition fees.
    It was about personal and publicised pledges signed by Clegg and every other MP to vote against increasing tuition fees within an election campaign which promised “no more broken promises”.

  • Helen Dudden 10th May '15 - 5:17pm

    You need fresh ideas at the top. New faces, to listen, rather than go out on a limb to upset certain communities.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Jun '15 - 5:08pm

    We do not yet know very much about advice given by Nick Clegg to David Cameron in private.
    Maybe he will write his memoirs soon.

    One thing we do know is that the Tory promise on net immigration was unachievable, simply because it was on NET immigration. UK citizens come and go as they wish with minimal restriction, except for a small proportion of criminal suspects.

    It was also wrong for the Home Office to impose this policy on staff personnel objectives, simply because it was not the policy of the coalition government

    Where staff make decisions on behalf of Ministers the decisions are subject to appeal and eventually to judicial review, but if all applications were refused the objective could not be met, simply because of UK citizens.

    Nick Clegg has said that he told David Cameron this.
    What is amazing is that David Cameron is repeating the error after winning the election.
    Is he more concerned with perceptions in some newspapers than with objective facts?
    He has made U-turns on other issues.

    David Cameron is famously relaxed about detail, which is fine if others are doing it for him.
    He could take the same attitude as Harold MacMillan.
    So why does he not know the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker at PMQ on 3/6/2015?

    UNHCR could advise. Jesus was a refugee because he crossed an international boundary into Egypt as a child. This was a long time before the United Nations was created or the 1951 Convention came into force, but Jesus did have a well founded fear of persecution, from herod, even though he was a child.

    Einstein was a refugee from Nazism in Europe, a Jew, he reached America.

    Anyone can claim asylum. The key queastions are whether the country in which the asylum seeker has arrived is a signatory to the Convention, implements it, and whether it recognises the refugee status claimed. David Cameron obviously does understand that refugees who have not arrived in UK jurisdiction are not the responsibility of the UK and therefore does nmot want to share out responsibility for accepting people trying to cross the Med. He wants to go further in two ways, cutting off Article 8 Human Rights, which overlays the Refugee Convention and cutting off the UK responsibility if our ships rescue people at sea.

    He has therefore put himself on the wrong side of a major moral cause.

    Liberals are needed more than ever.

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