Clegg’s resignation as leader may not be fair but sometimes a scapegoat is needed
A little under two weeks ago, I blogged about why for all for my issues with his leadership, I didn’t feel any personal malice towards Nick Clegg and in fact still quite respected him. This afternoon, I signed an open letter calling on him to quit. What happened?
Well it’s not that anything which happened between these two events has changed my views: the local elections were as bloody as I had expected. Rather it is that not withstanding my affection for Clegg, I recognise that he is now a political liability. The electorate simply does not share my assessment of him.
That analysis is not fair. Voters may say they want politicians who work across party lines and are prepared to make difficult decisions yet they revile Clegg for having done so. Nor is the widespread sense that he has betrayed voters fair. As I wrote in my initial post the possibility of a Lib-Con coalition was well trailed before the 2010 election. And the failure to adequately consider how our tuition fees possibility would operate in a coalition hardly seems like a sin that merits Clegg being burned in effigy as he literally and metaphorically has been. Even the letter calling for Clegg’s resignation acknowledges numerous cases where he has implemented rather than abandoning liberal principles.
However, we must not confuse what should be and what is. He might not deserve to be but there’s no denying that Clegg’s reputation is toxic. A Mori poll earlier this month gave him a net approval rating of -33%.Going into a General Election with a leader that unpopular is a terrifying The differing responses to Clegg in the leader’s and the European debates rather starkly illustrate that Clegg is now a messenger who is seen to reflect badly on the messages he carries. Woe betide the party if the main carrier of the message ‘vote Lib Dem’ in May 2015 is treated with such hostility.
This would matter a lot less if something could be done to change these perceptions. But as Andrew Rawnsley has written it’s hard to see how Clegg could change the way people see him:
Nick Clegg tried The Apology by confessing it was a mistake to make the promise on tuition fees that was subsequently broken. When spoofsters set it to music, that briefly registered on the pop charts, but it did nothing for the Lib Dems on the polling charts. His team have tried putting the leader about a lot with monthly press conferences and a weekly show on LBC. He comes over as engaged, thoughtful and reasonable, but it has made no discernible difference whatsoever to the fortunes of his party.
The Lib Dems have attempted to claim credit for the recovery and for some of the more popular things done by the coalition. Yet voters are unwilling to be impressed and there is constant competition from the Conservatives in those areas. They have gone for a strategy of increasingly aggressive differentiation from the Tories. Just in the past few days, we’ve had more manifestations of that with the row between the coalition parties over knife crime and an escalation of the naked warfare between the Lib Dem leader and Michael Gove. That doesn’t seem to be having any effect either.
In the postmortem of these contests, it is inevitable that questions will be asked about the wisdom of Mr Clegg’s decision to challenge Nigel Farage to TV debates. It was a high-risk move born of desperation, but I could understand his reasoning. The hope was that it would raise the Lib Dems’ profile and garner some extra support by projecting themselves as the one unambiguously pro-European party with the guts to stand up to Ukip. That was the theory. The hard truth for Lib Dems, which some of the Clegg team will privately acknowledge, is that the debates went badly for their leader and the effect was counter-productive. The post-debate polls awarded victory to the Ukip leader by margins that exceeded the Lib Dems’ fears. It was Nigel Farage who drew most benefit from the additional exposure.
So the choice for us Liberal Democrats is stark: take a deeply unpopular leader into the next General Election or find a less unpopular replacement. Regicide is not a pleasant option and I accept that this would essentially amount to making Clegg a scapegoat.
The original scapegoats were in fact literal goats. The Book of Leviticus describes how on the Day of Atonement the High Priest would choose two goats: one would be made a blood sacrifice and the other was abandoned to die in the wilderness. The rationale behind this was that these goats would embody the sins of the community. Killing them might be cruel and it was certainly unfair – the goats after all had not in fact sinned. However, it was seen as necessary to avoid God’s wrath which would wreak grave damage on the community as a whole.
Like the Ancient Israelites, political parties serve a vengeful and often cruel God: the electorate. And while offering them Clegg as a sacrifice might not be just that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.