Nick Clegg’s Gaza ‘non-statement’ shows the need to keep the Lib Dem torch burning in the “new politics”

by Stephen Tall on June 1, 2010

Nick Clegg is not normally reticent about commenting on the Middle East – see, for example, his public call for the international community to stop arming Israel 18 months ago.

So why did it take more than a day for the Lib Dem leader to speak out against the “unjustifiable and untenable” blockade of the Gaza Strip? Why do his words appear only on the Press Association website, rather than the party’s? It was at least tweeted by the official Lib Dem account, but that was the only communication via official party channels.

The answer is clear enough: the Lib Dems are now in coalition government, bound by collective responsibility. The government’s view is that expressed by William Hague, as foreign secretary.

Moreover the party’s press operation is in a state of flux, with some staff finding a new berth within government – but employed as civil servants, so unable to trade in party politics – and others unsure what will become of them as the party faces up to a future with much-reduced ‘Short money’ (or maybe none at all).

There seems currently to be much uncertainty within the party as to who can actually speak up, unabashed, for Lib Dem policies in those areas where we do not have a cabinet minister, let alone the four government departments where we have no minister at all.

This is certainly of great relevance to the current vacancy for deputy leader, often seen as little more than an honorific title, but which could turn out to be the most ubiquitous public face of the party if Nick Clegg and the other Lib Dems in government continue to feel constrained in what they can or cannot say, and their press officers even more circumspect.

We are still in early days of living with a coalition government. There is time for these things to be sorted out and settle down.

But it is crucial that they are, and soon.

The Lib Dems face many challenges as the junior partner in a coalition government. We absolutely cannot afford to lose our reputation for distinctiveness. That means ensuring we have credible politicians able to speak out on the key issues of the day with a 100% liberal viewpoint.