Who’d be leader of a political party?

by Stephen Tall on June 16, 2008

For the last few days, debate has been raging in Lib Dem circles about the decision of Nick Clegg not to stand a Liberal Democrat candidate against David Davis in the forthcoming Haltemprice and Howden by-election.

For some party members, Nick’s decision is utterly mystifying, and they have a number of pretty compelling arguments at their disposal:

  • David Davis is no liberal;
  • Haltemprice and Howden is a fairly marginal seat and it’s suicidal not to compete there;
  • by not standing we risk being frozen out of the media air-war;
  • we should not cede the civil liberties argument to Tories, no matter how maverick they are;
  • the decision should have been left to the local party; and
  • we must always give the electorate the choice of voting for a Liberal Democrat.

Each one of these is powerful; cumulatively they almost win the argument. Almost. Against them – or, perhaps more accurately, alongside them – can be placed the following counter-arguments, a potent mix of principle and tactics:

  • David Davis might not have stood down unless he had been assured the Lib Dems would not contest his seat;
  • his resignation is a good outcome for the Lib Dems tactically – because it has left the Tories shell-shocked; and in principle – because it has helped expose the flimsiness of the Tories’ opposition to 42 days;
  • if he had stood down and the Lib Dems had announced the party would contest his election, we would (i) be excoriated by most of the media for putting petty tribalism ahead of policy principle; (ii) be slammed by a large section of the electorate for the same reason: (iii) lose because of a combination of (i) and (ii);
  • in which case the party would have spent a huge amount of goodwill among the non-partisan liberal public which applauds Mr Davis’s action (and may well vote Lib Dem at the next general election), and face the prospect of a humiliating drubbing in a constituency which was one of our top targets in 2005.

Political leadership is about being comfortable taking the important decisions, having self-belief in your own judgement, and being prepared to take risks at the right time. Paddy had it in buckets (and perhaps to excess). Charles’s political antennae were remarkably acute (but he was let down by other frailties). Ming was too obviously plagued by self-doubt (at least towards the end).

Nick is having a baptism of fire. First, by refusing to support a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty: personally, I think he was wrong… but, then again, no candidate stood for the party leadership offering an alternative. And now, secondly, with David Davis’s resignation, an event unprecedented in recent political history: the resignation of a shadow cabinet minister as an MP to force a by-election on a single issue on which the two opposition parties agree.

On balance, I think Nick made the right call. Or, to be more precise, the least worst call available to him.

Had Nick made the opposite decision – and refused to give the Lib Dems’ tacit backing – it’s unlikely Mr Davis would have resigned; and I’m not sure that would have been any more to the Lib Dems’ advantage. If Mr Davis had called Nick’s bluff, and resigned anyway, the prospect would be far worse for the party: pilloried by many we would prefer to call our friends, and facing an almost certain defeat in the process.

This was a tough call for a still-inexperienced leader to make. (And I hope Nick first discussed it carefully with Chris Huhne, both as Mr Davis’s shadow and a famously shrewd tactician). There was no easy or universally popular option. To suggest otherwise is seriously to underestimate the difficulty of leading a political party.