My Total Politics column: Why getting battered and bruised may turn out to be an unavoidable occupational hazard of being Lib Dem leader

by Stephen Tall on June 20, 2014

Nick Clegg emerged from May’s local and European elections  battered and bruised, but with his leadership intact – just about. The cack-handed attempt by Vince Cable’s friend Lord Oakeshott  to stir insurrection against Clegg by leaking unfavourable private polls he’d paid for in battleground seats backfired spectacularly. Though there’s no shortage of Lib Dem activists none too chuffed with their leader, handing ammunition to the enemy is seen as an unpardonable act. Oakeshott was forced to resign from the party: Clegg stayed put. With no MP willing to challenge him, the coup quickly fizzled out.

But discontent remains, with dozens of local parties holding meetings to vote on whether there should be a leadership election. Though nothing like the 75 needed to trigger a contest will choose do so, each one that no-cons the leader inflicts another wound. Clegg knows he needs to do more than just survive. Limping, beleaguered by unfriendly fire, towards May 2015 – acknowledged to be a survival election for the Lib Dems – won’t be good enough. He needs to rally the troops, to inspire them that a great liberal victory is possible (or, more realistically, that a truly awful defeat can be avoided).

So Clegg’s sought to re-focus Lib Dem sights on the 2015 election. In a major speech in June at Bloomburg, he extolled its “unique mission” and promised “a manifesto which will set out our own distinct ambitions for Britain”. Here was the Lib Dem leader differentiating himself from the Deputy Prime Minister. Gone was his usual talk of “anchoring the government in the centre ground”. Instead, he declared, “I have never been interested in power for power’s sake. I have never been interested in coalition at any cost. What I am interested in is Liberal Democrats in government to build a more liberal Britain.”

This is the kind of attaboy-go-get-em-no-compromise spirit the party needs right now. But it doesn’t alter the fundamentals still facing the Lib Dems. As no-one, including us, believes we’ll win a majority in 2015, there’s only one way to implement liberal policies in government: by co-operating either with Labour or with the Tories. In which case, we’ll have to accept some of their illiberal policies we don’t much like, they’ll accept some of our liberal policies they don’t much like, we’ll each jettison some of the impossible policies we’ve had to include because our activists cleave to them, and on the rest we’ll work out some kind of compromise. If any of that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve been watching this Coalition for the past four years.

The Lib Dem manifesto-writing sausage factory is a curious mix of democracy and patronage which characterises much of the party’s internal processes – the mostly-elected, 27-member Federal Policy Committee, chaired by Clegg’s former PPS, Duncan Hames, appointed a 12-member manifesto working group to be chaired by David Laws, who was nominated by Clegg. The FPC will sign off the final document.

It is, of course, a work in progress. In his Bloomburg speech, and a press conference a week later, Clegg highlighted three of the emerging ideas. On the economy, the Lib Dems would balance the budget through a mix of spending cuts and tax rises, while safeguarding capital spending by re-incarnating Gordon Brown’s ‘golden rule’. On education – a touchy area for the Lib Dems to venture any new pledges – he promised to ring-fence spending on children and teenagers “from cradle to college”. Clegg also issued a ‘Parental Guarantee’ ensuring all children will be taught a core curriculum by a properly qualified teacher in every state-funded school, including Michael Gove’s pet ‘free schools’.

Such ideas sit much more comfortably with Labour than they do with the Tories. I’ve totted up the number of policies where Lib Dem policies overlap with Ed Miliband’s. I make it 21 to date, including tax-cuts for low-earners, the introduction of a Mansion Tax, a major council house-building programme, cuts to universal benefits for wealthy pensioners, rent reforms for private tenants, a living wage for public sector workers, and an elected House of Lords.

If Labour ends up the largest single party in a hung parliament – and if its activists are able to see past the red mist which descends when they eye a Lib Dem – there’s plenty of material for a Lib/Lab pact. The same cannot be said of the Lib Dems and our current Coalition partners. As the Queen’s Speech showed, the cupboard is bare of ambitious reforms both parties can unite behind.

Yet the trend in the polls is now turning in the Tories’ favour. It’s always the economy, stupid: Cameron and Osborne are becoming the beneficiaries of the austerity-delayed recovery.  My current bet would be that it’s they who end up with most MPs, though short of an overall majority. The Lib Dems and Tories might hate the thought of continuing to work with each other, but the voters may leave them with little choice. If so, getting battered and bruised may turn out to be an unavoidable occupational hazard of being Lib Dem leader.