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Commentary 343 – January 2011
03 January 2011 (17:07:37)


The debacle over tuition fees at least means that the public will in future be spared vacuous slogans about how the Liberal Democrats are different from the other parties. No other good can come from this fiasco, one that calls into question Nick Clegg’s ability to manage awkward political situations even when they are clearly foreseen.

A leader who had spent decades working his way up in politics would have been less likely to blunder into this elephant trap than one who emerged more or less from nowhere to become an MEP. After one term in Brussels he became an MP and, after another two and half years, leader, then 18 months later deputy prime minister.

Clegg’s inexperience was little remarked upon during the leadership campaign, not least because the same charge applied only slightly less to Chris Huhne, but it is showing now.

In the run-up to the general election, it was not exactly impossible to foresee a hung parliament, yet Lib Dem MPs were not merely left free to sign the NUS tuition fees pledge but, according to reports, ordered to do so if they were reluctant. Clegg himself signed.

Come the coalition talks, it was obvious this would be a problem. Why then did the negotiators tie the party’s fate to Lord Browne's review, the outcome of which they had no control over?

The Tories were desperate for a coalition; would they really not have moved further towards the Lib Dem position? Perhaps they were never pushed, since the negotiators were drawn from among those MPs who had done their best to ditch the policy before the election.

But the coalition agreement said Lib Dem MPs could abstain on the issue. It did not say that Lib Dem ministers and parliamentary secretaries could not.

Mass abstention was promoted by Clegg at one point so why, 24 hours before, was it suddenly decided that ministers had to vote with the government, a move that served to make the party look ludicrous as well as dishonest?

The reason this has been so toxic is that it was not just a broken manifesto promise – though that would have been bad enough – but a personal pledge freely given by professional politicians. This turned a question of policy into a question of trust.

Breaking a pledge blows a hole in any argument that Lib Dems keep their promises as a matter of course. It also blows a hole in the constituency the party had successfully cultivated among students and well-educated young adults, with consequences that those MPs who voted with the government may one day rue.

What other unforeseen traps may open up between now and 2015 in which Clegg will prove similarly wanting at leading the party through?

He has allowed the party to be positioned where it, not the Conservatives, is blamed for everything the government does while getting little credit for positive measures. Can’t, for example, Danny Alexander be told to stop his wooden television performances and let George Osborne take the flak for once?

The only way the party will survive the coalition alive is if it gains policy objectives, moderates the worst of some Conservative ones and is clearly, loudly and unambiguously seen to have done so. Instead, it has behaved as though the coalition were a single party government. It isn’t, and the pretence that the Lib Dems support every aspect of government policy does the reverse double of being both wrong and unpopular.

A month or so before the tuition fees vote, Lib Dem stomachs will have turned at the spectacle of Clegg patting Osborne’s back as he finished delivering a spending review larded with gratuitous acts of meanness against poor people. If Lib Dem hands pat Tory backs just as the Tories show their worst side, why should anyone wonder that voters blame the Lib Dems for the reckless gamble the government has embarked on in trying to cut the deficit so fast?

We predicted in Liberator 340 that a party used to being either ignored or quite liked would have to get used to being robustly hated by some sections of society when in power. That has come true quicker and deeper than anyone could have conceived. As the spending cuts bite, it is unlikely to become any less true.

If the party is to survive what has been (and will be) thrown at it, it needs a leader who can see how to push its freedom of action and separate identity within the coalition to the maximum, and who always looks to how the party will eventually extricate itself and have a credible platform on which to fight future elections.

Can Nick Clegg do that? Let’s be fair, he is on a learning curve too and it is essential he does learn from the tuition fees debacle. But with the country echoing to the sound of Lib Dem membership cards being torn up and the party’s poll rating heading down towards others’, he had better learn very fast.

At least this exact problem will not recur. Who now would ask a Lib Dem to pledge their vote on anything?

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