Opinion on Nick Clegg's first anniversary: Stephen Tall – a work in progress

by Stephen Tall on December 18, 2008

Clegg’s first year: Clegg on Clegg | Tall on Clegg | Land on Clegg | Littlewood on Clegg | Clegg on YouTube

It’s a cliché that the leader of Her Majesty’s official opposition has the most difficult job in British politics; unusually the cliché is wrong. For sure, David Cameron’s in an unenviable position (and not just because he’s a Tory); utterly powerless, the only weapons he has in his artillery are words. But at least those words are listened to; debated and disagreed with; quoted and used against him. They are not ignored.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the third largest party in the UK, the Liberal Democrats, does not (yet) enjoy the frustration of being the Leader of the Opposition. Inbetween elections when newspapers and broadcasters conspire to pretend that Britain has only two political parties, Lib Dem leaders must battle for every mili-second of publicity. They can look forward to endless dissection of their most minor gaffes; and learn to realise that their serious speeches are judged too dull by meedja execs in thrall to the myth that citizens just can’t be arsed to pay attention to anything that smacks of serious.

So exactly how do we judge the success (or otherwise) of Nick Clegg, who today begins his second year as our leader?

To be honest, I think it’s pretty easy. Nick Clegg as leader is exactly what the vast majority of us – discounting those few who thought he was the Lib Dem Messiah, and those few for whom Nick can do no right – thought he would be: he’s a work in progress.

Nick has immense intellectual strength and curiosity. He’s actually a policy wonk, which many might regard as a handicap for a political leader, who is often expected to remain at arms-length from the detail (a la Blair). I find Nick’s hunger for new ideas one of his most endearing qualities. If either Gordon Brown or David Cameron had even half Nick’s questing drive, political debate in this country would be so much more mature than it is.

But, as so often, there is a flip-side to Nick’s boyish questioning: his habit of ‘thinking out loud’ sometimes results in fuzzy communication, most notably when he appeared to suggest that the “vast bulk” of the party’s £20 billion public spending savings would be ear-marked for tax cuts. Nick’s chief of staff Danny Alexander was hastily despatched to these very pages to try and ventriloquise the party out of Nick’s mis-speaking; but the damage was done, and the confusion has been hard to un-do.

Which is a shame, really, because just a month later, Nick managed to encapsulate the party’s tax proposals in 10 succinct sentences, even earning praise from often trenchant critics for the popular clarity and foresight of his call. As I suggested in an open letter to Nick here the morning after his election victory: “Be disciplined: you may despise yourself for repeating yourself – but realise that a constant, truthful message rammed home is vital to establishing the party as a credible contender.” (This advice doesn’t apply solely to Nick, of course; it’s true of all of us involved in promoting the party at any level).

Mind you, I think the party should learn to be much more relaxed about Nick’s other so-called ‘gaffes’: would he repeat his off-the-cuff remark to Piers Morgan that he had slept with “a lot less” than 30 women? I doubt it: “none of your business” would have been by far the better (and more boring) response. Should we care? I doubt it even less: only seedy, sleazy hacks give a toss (so to speak). As for his spontaneous confession to being an atheist, well I’m unsure since when the word ‘gaffe’ became synonymous with ‘honest’: I don’t believe for a moment that any Christian or deity would have preferred it if Nick had feigned faith on the grounds of political expediency.

Nick faces the Catch-22 all his predecessors have confronted: don’t put a foot wrong, and you’re labelled ‘Mr Cellophane’; take a few risks, and you get a reputation for being gaffe-prone. In fact, Nick has fared no worse than either Paddy or Charles in their respective first years, and considerably better than Ming.

I think Nick can be half-acquitted of two specific charges levelled against him by his critics.

First, the cock-up over the party’s Lisbon Treaty tactics. That the Lib Dems, of all parties, ended up being split on the issue of Europe is a bizarre and remarkable achievement; the leadership’s failure to allow its MPs a free vote on the rights and wrongs of a referendum was a masterclass in cutting off our No’s to spite our face. Quite simply, Nick made the wrong call. It was, by the way, exactly the same wrong call that Chris Huhne would have made if he’d been leader – we know this because Nick and Chris were both united in their answers on this point at the leadership election hustings.

Secondly, the party’s dip in the opinion polls. It’s been disappointing, to be sure, that the Lib Dems have failed to benefit, indeed appear to have suffered a little, from the current economic crisis, despite being the only political party to have correctly predicted the problems that were brewing, and despite being the only political party to propose solutions that were eventually adopted by a reluctant Labour Government. But the harsh truth is – as we’re discovering – that opposition parties rarely get rewarded for pointing out in advance what the Government should do, especially when the Government decides (albeit belatedly) to take (some of) our advice. Unfair? ‘Fraid so. Nick’s fault? Absolutely not.

Little could Nick have known when he took office a year ago quite what was going to hit him as leader – a European treaty revolt, five Parliamentary by-elections, the resignation of David Davis, a financial 9/11. Truth be told, he’s been buffeted more than any of us would like, Nick included. But the bigger truth is this: Nick is at least as ambitious, confident, intelligent, articulate and focused as he was when this party first elected him. And he now has a year’s experience under his belt.

I started by arguing that Nick’s leadership was a ‘work in progress’. Let me close by saying I think that’s a cause for real excitement. As the old Lib Dem slogan goes, ‘A lot done, a lot still to do’.

* Stephen Tall is Editor-at-Large of Lib Dem Voice.