Another good week for Nick Clegg

by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2009

Okay, so it’s not the most controversial headline you’re going to read on a Lib Dem blog all week. But, still, I think it needs saying – because though we Lib Dems, especially in the blogosphere, tend to be quite good at criticising our leadership, MPs and other ‘powers that be’, I’m not sure we always spread the love when it’s deserved.

I kept my powder dry during the leadership campaign, didn’t declare my voting intention, have never publicly disclosed it since. I felt both candidates – Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne – had very real strengths. I also thought each had significant, but very different, weaknesses.

My concerns with Nick were his tendency to think out loud – I admire such intellectual curiosity, but it can land a leader in hot water – and that he hadn’t yet the temperament to ‘manage’ the party with ruthless harmony. The jury’s probably still out on the former; but this week has suggested that his management skills, undoubtedly put to the test in the last week, have risen to the occasion.

This isn’t just about his media interviews on MPs’ expenses – which have generally been firm, empathetic to voters’ anger, and sound – but also the way he has personally led the party’s response, and made sure the Parliamentary party knows he means privately what he says publicly.

David Cameron has also done well this week, but has two crucial advantages over Nick. First, he has more executive power as leader of his party than Nick has as leader of ours. Secondly, it’s not to Mr Cameron’s electoral disadvantage to pick a fight with some of his MPs, especially the ‘moat-cleaning’ Tory grandees – if anything it reinforces his ‘I’m a strong leader, a different kind of Tory’ schtick.

One doubt I never harboured: that Nick lacked the emotional intelligence to be a successful, popular, liberal leader. That quality he’s demonstrated in spades this week. Sadly, it’s not been over-much on display among all our MPs this week – I’m thinking in particular of the tone-deaf appearances of Lembit Opik (on BBC Radio 5 Live), Chris Huhne (on that trouser press on Channel 4 News: “If I have to turn up to a public event, I’m expected to look smart. I think that should be legitimate.”) and Ming Campbell (on BBC1’s Question Time).

But the Boy Nick has done good, and this impression is resonating not just with partisan Lib Dems like me, but also with the public – at least if his personal poll ratings are any guide.

When YouGov asked the question, ‘Do you think Nick Clegg is doing well or badly as leader of the Liberal Democrats?’ in April his net score was +2% (33%/31%). This month it stands at +15% (43%/28%), the highest YouGov figure for a Lib Dem leader since Charles Kennedy in April 2005. Meanwhile, this week’s PoliticsHome ‘Leadership Performance Tracker’ found Nick’s net approval rating has soared in the last month, from +11% in mid-April to +23% in mid-May, just behind David Cameron.

The last week might have been the most dire for Parliament’s reputation in living memory – but Nick’s calm, strong leadership has done much for his personal reputation, and that reflects well on the party as a whole.