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.