Shoring up Nick Clegg
That is the task of Deputy Prime Minister’s fan cub at The Independent today: he’s had a bit of kicking in Barnsley, his back-benchers are fractious and the troops are mutinous. Mr Clegg’s response?
“Hold your nerve... We are in this for the long haul. We are going to keep our nerve. We are not going to flinch. We were right to go into government. We are doing the right things in government... Keep your head up high. Be proud of what we are doing. Don't be cowed by what people are saying about us. Stick to the course."And he lists his reasons to be cheerful; the policies he has instituted which would never have seen the light of day if he had not agreed to form a coalition with the Conservatives:
"Without the Liberal Democrats, you would not have got a huge restoration of civil liberties; a balanced approach to Europe; a ferocious protection of human rights; a very heavy emphasis on more resources to our schools; the pupil premium; lifting thousands and thousands of people out of income tax; a £10bn levy on the banks; a crackdown on tax loopholes, a referendum in May on the voting system.”To that, His Grace would add constitutional reform: it is something of a Liberal holy grail.
O, and Mr Clegg is able to tell the Prime Minister that he (the Prime Minister) sometimes talks ‘complete bilge’.
That is the advantage of being in coalition, you see: you can have Punch & Judy politics while getting your way in some policy areas.
The reality is, if this coalition is to last the course, Nick Clegg urgently needs shoring up, and David Cameron isn’t going to begrudge the sort of headline which will have millions leaping to agree: “Yes, of course her talks bilge, etc., etc.” He is fully aware that if his Deputy falls, the Government falls with him. Mr Cameron’s priorities are repayment of the national debt, balancing the fiscal deficit, education reform, welfare reform and sundry ‘events’ in North Africa and the Middle East. And things are going quite well for him on most of these fronts. The last thing he needs is a general election, which, with Labour presently 11 per cent ahead, he would probably lose.
As Mr Clegg journeys to his annual Spring Conference in Sheffield to revive the sick parrot, it is important to the Conservatives that the Liberal Democrats are not blamed solely for the (modest) programme of cuts, and it is equally important that they do not endure the disproportionate wrath of the electorate. David Cameron’s reforms are real and will endure: if he achieves his revolutionary objectives in welfare and education alone, he will go down in history as a great reforming prime minister. And that agenda is fundamentally Conservative. Considering the Party did not win the 2010 General Election, the prize is delicious.
Mr Clegg said tomorrow's conference vote could not unilaterally change government policy but reassured his party it would carry ‘significant influence’.
Thus is the nature of coalition.
Doubtless this thread will descend into the usual drivel about His Grace's delusion and the urgent need to vote UKIP on BNP. Proponents for either party appear not to be able to come to terms with the reality. While Nigel Farage has aspirations to become the county’s new third party, he seems oblivious to the fact that at least the Greens have one MP. Certainly, UKIP do well in Euro elections, but Mr Farage’s own performance in Buckingham ought to remind him that Westminster is not an easy nut to crack. And if the LibDems are obliterated over the next four years, the DUP are actually next in line to become the country’s third party. And as for the BNP, well, they are shackled with a leader who is a manifest liability, and research has shown that people are not inclined to vote for them – as much as they may agree with many of their core policies – because of the party’s long association with racism.
The Conservative Party did not win the 2010 General Election: they cannot therefore expect to govern as though they had. The compromises over the EU, the ECHR, marriage allowance and the AV referendum are all deeply painful. But they are a price worth paying not to have five more years of Labour. Whatever you think about the Cameron-Clegg coalition, it is without doubt the lesser evil; the least worst option; the best that could have been made out of the electorate’s unclear verdict last April. The alternative in not Nick Griffin, and neither is it Nigel Farage or even the Rt Hon David Davis: it is Ed Miliband.
Or Ed Balls.
We would do well to remember that, and wish the Deputy Prime Minister Godspeed in Sheffield: it may not be his constituency home for very much longer.