Nick Clegg has screwed up being Lib Dem leader but he’s an admirable failure.
Quite a few of my Lib Dem friends who share my discontent with our current leadership have been (with some glee) sharing an opinion piece by Andrew Rawnsley arguing that Nick Clegg’s leadership is again in danger:
In the end, it is Lib Dems who will have Nick Clegg’s life in their hands. For four torrid years, they have displayed a remarkable resilience, an astonishing discipline and an incredible resistance to despair. He is not a religious man, but Nick Clegg is surely praying that his party isn’t about to finally snap.
For all that I share my colleagues’ frustration and disappointment with Clegg’s leadership; I can’t quite share their delight at his potential downfall. I really can’t manage to bring myself to dislike him personally or politically.
I supported Huhne rather than Clegg in the leadership election because I feared that all “most [voters] will know of him [Clegg] is his face and the odd sound bite and on the basis of that, they may well conclude that he is awfully like Cameron.”* But that was a decision of the head rather than the heart. For me the defining moment of that election was when in a Newsnight debate the two candidates were asked if there was too much immigration: Huhne waffled about ‘pressure on public services’, Clegg just said ‘no.’
The following two and a half years seemed to suggest my reservations about Clegg had been misplaced. He was an effective figurehead for the party even before Cleggmania largely rescued the Party from the damage it had sustained in the years since Charles Kennedy had resigned.
But then the Coalition happened. In contrast to the overwhelming bulk of the party I opposed it. But I had to admit that my position – a supply and confidence agreement with a minority Tory government – was the more cautious one and more informed by political calculation. I wanted us to have more distance from a government making unpopular decisions and greater opportunities to disengage. That would have come at the price of being able to implement fewer of our policies.
Going into Coalition wasn’t the only occasion where Clegg has shown such boldness: we could also point to his decision to challenge Nigel Farage for example. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that many of his major mistakes – from giving a pledge on tuition fees which couldn’t be squared with the realities of Coalition, to embracing austerity too wholeheartedly or not checking the details of the Health and Social Care Act – stem from a certain recklessness. And while I might not always be happy with its results as a matter of style I find it refreshing. We live with a political landscape dominated by pathetically limp and risk adverse politicians like Ed Miliband: whose signature policy an energy price freeze will make very little impact, disappears after two years with no lasting impact and potentially damages the environment. The contrast Clegg provides with this kind of crap is welcome.
Of course, others’ anger with Clegg was for rather different reasons. For many people, they see Clegg as a liar and a turncoat for entering a Conservative lead coalition. But that’s hardly fair. Before the election, he had stated that the Liberal Democrats would potentially enter a coalition with the Conservatives. And the Labour Party had warned people that the possibility of Clegg aligning himself with the Tories:
If anyone feels betrayed by what has happened since the General Election, then frankly they should have been paying closer attention before it.
Even that Rawnsley article isn’t all bad news for Clegg. He says that:
I’d assumed that, whatever they said about Mr Clegg in public, it was Labour’s secret desire for him to lead his party into the next election. I’m not quite so sure after Labour’s clunking Clegg-bashing party political broadcast. Perhaps going for him in such a crude way betrayed a Labour anxiety that some of the Lib Dem voters who have switched to Labour might go back. Perhaps they now really want to kill him.
If either they or my own faction within the Lib Dems succeeds I’d see that as rather a disappointment.
*Yeah, I know