It would be fair to say that in having a certain affection for and admiration of Nick Clegg, I am in a definite minority. His approval rating amongst voters is dire and a poll this week indicated that his own seat is in serious danger.
I’ve not always been a cheerleader for Clegg but I do still have a lot of time for him. In light of the TV debates tonight, I thought it worth revisiting a post I wrote last year about my judgement of him:
I supported Huhne rather than Clegg in the leadership election because I feared that all “most [voters] will know of [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.
I stand by that. I also stand by my view expressed elsewhere that he’s the wrong man to be Liberal Democrat leader: in too many voters eyes he’s now damaged goods. But that doesn’t make their assessment fair or accurate. I really do hope that enough of them will be able to look past the easy judgements of the man to keep in a position where he can do some good.