My Total Politics column: It’s War! The Lib Dems’ “enemy within strategy” shows it’s no longer peace in our time

by Stephen Tall on February 16, 2014

It’s War! Here’s how Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Nick Clegg, broadcast the news to the nation: “This morning the Lib Dem Ambassador in London handed our Coalition partners in Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their right-wing agenda, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this party is at war with the Conservatives.”

I’m lying, of course. Nick Clegg is still, officially at any rate, holding on to the piece of paper he has bearing both the Prime Minister’s name and his own, headed ‘The Coalition: our programme for government’, which promised peace in our time. But this policy of appeasement, which has kept the phoney peace fragilely intact since May 2010, is fracturing, having served its useful purpose of postponing for a few years the inevitable resumption of hostilities between two old enemies.

Okay, let’s not torture the war analogy any further. This much is clear. We are little more than a year away from the general election campaign. It’s in both Coalition parties’ interests to shout their disagreements a little louder. That is why David Cameron is happy to tell The Spectator “that there’s a good list of things I have put in my little black book that I haven’t been able to do which will form the next Tory manifesto.” And it’s why Nick Clegg highlighted in his last conference speech 16 Tory policies he’s blocked within government: “Sometimes compromise and agreement isn’t possible and you just have to say no.”

It’s what pundits term ‘differentiation’ and suddenly it’s all the rage. Matthew Oakeshott, the pugnacious Lib Dem peer who acts as Vince Cable’s paramilitary wing, is delighted at this new-found enthusiasm for public spats: “What I think is significant is that we’ve seen a string of attacks – almost what I would call an enemy within strategy.”

He cited recent interventions by Nick Clegg, who has spoken of his frustration at the Tories’ refusal to look “openly, imaginatively” at reforming the drugs laws; by David Laws, who has declared his fury at Michael Gove’s meddling in the supposedly independent schools inspectorate, Ofsted; and by Danny Alexander, who declared that Tory plans to cut the higher-rate of tax below 45p would happen only “over my dead body”. What links all three – Clegg, Laws, Alexander – is that they are the most devout of Coalition believers, and seemingly happiest working with the Tories. If this Lib Dem trinity are now agnostics, does the Lib-Con Coalition even exist any more?

To the more excitable in the Westminster Village, this newly intensified differentiation spells the end (as, it should be noted, did every other previous eruption at the time). In reality, what Oakeshott terms the ‘enemy within strategy’ was always inevitable and has long been planned. Nick Clegg’s first strategy adviser, Richard Reeves, once drew a graph plotting ‘Government unity and strength’ against ‘Lib Dem identity’ as two lines, the former going down and the latter rising up, between 2010 and 2015. We are approaching the point when the two lines are as far apart as it’s possible to get.

But what is the ‘Lib Dem identity’ now? To right-wing journalist Fraser Nelson it’s obvious – Clegg is in red-blooded pursuit, he wrote in the Daily Telegraph, of “the people he had given up on: the Left-wingers”, blaming Reeves’ successor, Ryan Coetzee, for this alleged lurch. Nelson’s assumption is a fundamental misunderstanding of the current Lib Dem strategy, as shaped by Coetzee, who has initiated the party’s first ever extensive private polling operation of what he terms the Lib Dem ‘market’ – the 25% of voters who say they are very likely to vote for the party (10%), or who would at least consider doing so (15%), in 2015.

These 15% of ‘persuadables’ are pretty evenly split three ways, between people who are currently Conservative or Labour voters or who are undecided. They are the small-l-liberal voters who (for example) like the Lib Dems’ tax-cuts for the low-paid, who are themselves willing to pay for well-run public services, who are pragmatically pro-European, and who want to see investment in renewables to protect the environment. In other words, moderate, progressive centrists, who worry that the Tories are too uncaring and that Labour is too irresponsible.

The party’s slogan for 2015 – ‘Building a stronger economy and a fairer society’ – is aimed squarely at these ‘persuadables’. If Clegg succeeds in his mission to convince a decent chunk of them to vote for the party, he will likely hold the balance of power once again. In which case another parliament of peace in our time may yet beckon. Just don’t expect it to hold for a full five years.