Sunday, February 13, 2011
Mail on Sunday Column: "Nothing to do with us, Guv - It's those wicked Tories!"
FOR 88 YEARS THE LIBDEMS YEARNED FOR POWER. NOW THEY'VE GOT IT, WHY ARE THEY SO MISERABLE? Iain Dale investigates, for the Mail on Sunday...
It’s been another difficult week for the Liberal Democrats. The acrimonious departure of the hyperactive Lord Oakeshott as LibDem their Treasury spokesman in the House of Lords was a classic example of how the LibDems are diminished by the self indulgence of some of their leading lights. He didn’t think the deal Vince Cable and George Osborne did with the bankers went far enough. So he flounced.
And then we had 130 LibDem councillors using vitriolic language to complain about the cuts the coalition is inflicting on local government - conveniently forget that one of the architects of those very cuts is their local government minister Andrew Stunell. Before he was elected as a LibDem MP Stunell was Political Secretary to the Association of the LibDem Councillors – the organisation that once advised LibDem politicians to “be wicked, act shamelessly.” No one can say that they didn’t take the advice. Their apparent concerns over cuts are more to do with saving their council seats at the election in May than genuine outrage.
But these examples of the difficulties LibDems are having, adapting to wielding power for the first time in 88 years, are far from isolated. They are symptomatic of a far wider problem in the party. And it is a problem they need to face up to if they are to escape political oblivion.
A few days after the coalition was formed a Conservative minister was walking back to his ministerial office and passed the open door of his LibDem ministerial colleague. He glanced into the office and saw the minister, head in hands, almost sobbing. Enquiring as to what on earth was wrong, the Conservative was astonished to be faced with a tearful outburst about how making decisions was not what LibDems were put on this earth to do.
Eight months on, many LibDems seem incapable of understanding that being part of a national coalition government means not only having to make decisions, but standing by them. LibDem backbenchers and councillors don’t seem to get that it is their government too; that with power comes responsibility – collective responsibility.
Government is tough. Wielding power can sometimes be a dirty business. Ministers are often faced with the choice of the unacceptable or the unpalatable. To govern is to choose, as Charles de Gaulle once said. If you’re incapable of choosing, you’re incapable of governing. But it’s also about keeping your nerve ad keeping your eye on the greater goals.
Too many LibDems seem incapable of recognising that their 20 ministers face these decisions day after day. Those that cannot make a decision need to question why they are there at all. If they’re not in politics to wield power and change things, what is their reason for existing?
Don’t get me wrong. Some LibDem ministers have taken to wielding power like ducks to water. Danny Alexander and Chris Huhne fit government like a hand fits a glove. But too many of their colleagues seem to believe they can cherrypick the government decisions they can bring themselves to support. Their attitude to the coalition’s more unpopular policies seems to be “nothing to do with us, guv, it’s those wicked Tories.” Collective responsibility doesn’t work like that.
That’s why David Cameron was happy to accede to Nick Clegg’s request for a LibDem minister in almost every government department. He knew it would bind them in, with no get out of jail free card.
All political parties are coalitions within themselves. No politician can ever agree with 100% of what their own political party does. But the LibDems have taken wearing their hearts on their sleeves to new extremes as they try to salve their collective consciences. And some of their major figures, who showed so much promise in opposition have struggled with real power and real responsibility.
Vince Cable’s influence has all but disappeared following his entrapment by two pretty journalists who persuaded him to unburden himself at his constituency surgery. He’s gone from being the second most influential LibDem to a political non-entity in the time it took for his ‘constituent’ to flutter her eyelashes.
Simon Hughes, the LibDem deputy leader, is the ultimate example of the rather unattractive tendency of LibDem politicians to wear their consciences on their sleeves. His public agonising over how to vote over tuition fees was nauseating to watch. And in true LibDem style, in the end he abstained.
The word ‘leadership’ is absent from his lexicon, although that is not an accusation which can be thrown at his leader, Nick Clegg.
“If you’re the leader of the third party, you have to be willing to take risks,” Clegg once told me. When he took his party into the coalition he took the mother of all risks, and provided clear, unassailable leadership. The country praised him for it. Even the doubters in his own party reckoned he had pulled off a remarkable coup in negotiating 20 ministerial posts. Surely they would be able to stamp their mark on the government in a way that would guarantee electoral success in the future?
Perhaps it is too early to make a judgement, but it isn’t turning out like that. Clegg seems a shadow of the ebullient and confident leader we saw during the election campaign. The “I Agree With Nick” phenomenon is all but a distant memory. He looks gaunt, complains of lack of sleep and is clearly struggling with his workload. He obsesses about issues like the alternative vote system and House of Lords reform which the electorate care little about and has failed to demonstrate what the LibDems have achieved in the coalition.
Yet he seems to base his future electoral strategy on the electorate rewarding the LibDems at the next election for being a moderating influence on the Conservatives.
It won’t work. Electorates rarely reward. They either punish a party for its incompetence and record or they vote for a party based on what they think it will do. The problem for Nick Clegg is that it will be difficult for him to differentiate himself from the Conservatives at the next election.
Who would believe a manifesto pledge to abolish tuition fees, for example? It may even be best for the LibDems not to have a manifesto at the next election. What would be the point?
No one respects a party which regularly splits three ways in Commons votes. The LibDem party organisation is in turmoil. Money has dried up and the finances are so bad that they’re having to move out of their Westminster headquarters.
So, what to do? In short. they need to recover their ability to fight. When Paddy Ashdown learnt of Nick Clegg’s wish to lead the LibDem into the coalition he exclaimed “I may hate the Tories, by **** it, I’m with you.” The LibDems need more Ashdowns – people who are willing to follow their leader over the top and into battle, no matter how unwinnable it may seem.
It may seem a strange thing to say, but they need some John Prescotts. Prescott never fails to rally to the Labour cause. Who do the LibDems have? Ming Campbell and Charlie Kennedy? Neither can resist the temptation to stick the knife into the coalition, preferably in front of a TV camera.
The election may be four years away but the LibDems must be worried about their current trough in the opinion polls. Leaving the coalition is not an option, yet sticking with it almost guarantees hitting an electoral brick wall.
The question most politicos ask asking is a rhetorical one. Who’d be a LibDem nowadays?