What Nick can do next…

by Stephen Tall on June 18, 2011

The Guardian’s Michael White poses the tricky question for Liberal Democrats — “Nick Clegg is doing better, but will it be enough?” — on his blog, following Nick’s well-received speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery. As Michael points out, only the sharp jokes were reported in the media, rather than the substance which accompanied them (a charge to which I also plead partially guilty). So let’s add a bit of balance…

[Nick Clegg] had three non-jokey points to make – three you didn’t read in the papers today. One was that, whatever happens at the next election, Britain will not return to the binary, red-blue world – “polarised” was the world he used – of the 1950s. Life is more complex, more fluid now.

Second – the coalition wasn’t simply a matter of maths. It came to power in a crisis, the Greek economy in flames, Europe and Britain on the edge of a precipice. … The coalition’s task is to create a more balanced “less whizz-bang” economy. ” A long period of steady, reliable growth is what this country needs,” he told his audience. …

Clegg’s third point was about the Lib Dems’ future. … The DPM thinks that, in 2015, his party will be able to face voters saying it did difficult and unpopular things in government with “our arch-enemies” and has shown it can be trusted. Labour’s Plan B is a B for bankruptcy, he said.

Post-tuition fees, post-AV, post-local elections, Nick Clegg has come in for a hell of a bashing, his name a too-easy punchline for gagsters everywhere. The question Michael White poses is a legitimate one, and it’s one that’s been nagging away at Lib Dems these past weeks: will Nick really be able to fight another election as party leader?

Like anyone else sane, I’m not going to make a prediction either way. It’s possible to see a scenario in which Nick’s reputation never recovers from the perception (however unfair, however unreasonable) that by forming the Coalition with the Conservatives, and compromising to deliver a programme for government, he’s somehow “betrayed” those voters who apparently thought the Lib Dems could get their own way on everything with 23% of the vote.

But there is another possibility, and one I think that is more optimistic and realistic: that, as the economy slowly recovers and reforms such as taking the lowest-paid out of tax begin to bed in, Nick will begin to earn credit for his pragmatically progressive leadership.

For that perception truly to kick in, two things are vital. First, and most obviously, an economic recovery which delivers private sector growth that offsets public sector pain. Secondly, Nick needs to retain his resilience, adopt a ‘stiff upper lip’ to the constant barracking from left and right that resents his role in breaking up the cosy Labour/Tory duopoly. Commentators likes to overplay Nick’s unpopularity for their own ends, as I’ve noted previously:

The media narrative is that Nick is the most unpopular politician in Britain. As I’ve pointed out before, that’s not true: most Tory voters and a majority of Lib Dems rate him as doing a good job; Labour voters do appear to dislike him. So it is not that Nick is unpopular; it’s that he’s divisive.

Most people, and certainly most politicians, and definitely most Lib Dems, like to be liked. To be actively disliked by sections of the population does not come easily. But if Nick can reconcile himself to that state, he has the opportunity to gain something much more important to any political leader: respect. If he can earn that over the next four years, he’ll have every chance of contesting the next election from a position of genuine strength, and one that’s much more deeply rooted than ‘Cleggmania’.