by Stephen Tall on February 2, 2009
There’s a rather remarkable feature in today’s Independent – a fair and balanced feature article highlighting Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s town hall tours. The first part focuses on what Nick’s learned from the process, and how he feels these Q&As have helped keep him grounded as leader:
The public meetings have convinced him that all politics is personal as well as local; people want to know what it will do for them. He is straight, not flashy, very good at connecting with people, and genuinely enjoys the town-hall circuit. “It’s good to know what people are thinking; sometimes you see the weaknesses of your own answers,” he admits. His rural and urban rides persuade him that Labour is “knackered” and can’t win the next election, but that the country has not yet been won over by David Cameron’s Conservatives. He detects a North-South divide: people in the North are less disgruntled than those in the South.
It then focuses on the difficulties the third party leader faces in getting his message across to a media which rarely shows any inclination to listen – even though the Lib Dems have been making the running throughout the current financial crisis:
At Prime Minister’s Questions, he gets only two shots to Mr Cameron’s six, making it easier for Gordon Brown to swat him away. Normally, the only way he makes the TV news bulletins is by raising the same issue as the Tory leader. But that makes him sound like Little Sir Echo. As they try to carve out their own niche, the Liberal Democrats have been ahead of the curve on the debt crisis, the housing bubble, fuel poverty and the nationalisation of Northern Rock. Now they dare to raise the question of joining the euro and call for state ownership of the weakest banks.
And finally, but perhaps most significantly, Nick once again makes clear that the party is preparing itself to state quite clearly what will be its position in the event of a hung Parliament:
“It is important that I provide stability and clarity about what, whatever the circumstances, a vote for the Lib Dems means,” he says. “What would be wrong would be for them not to know what we would do.” If no party wins outright, Mr Clegg won’t not pick up the phone. He believes one of the big two will enjoy a “moral mandate”, so its leader will have to make the first move – either to go-it-alone or seek the support of smaller parties. An understanding under which the Liberal Democrats would not vote down a Queen’s Speech is much more likely than a formal coalition. Unlike his predecessor, Paddy Ashdown, in 1997, Mr Clegg insists: “I am not interested in blunting our zeal for change because of the prospect of a bum or two on the back of ministerial limousines.” He is surprisingly confident that he will be able to defy the odds and have more bums on the Liberal Democrat benches in the Commons. He argues that the current crisis is political as well as economic, that it has been 20 years in the making, so the Tories as well as Labour are to blame.