by Stephen Tall on July 4, 2014
My last piece of advice to Nick Clegg was to stand down as Lib Dem leader. He didn’t, and it’s pretty clear now that Nick will lead us into the next general election.
Two problems remain, though, and we need to find ways of addressing them. First, morale in the party has dipped since the May elections. Secondly, support for the party has also dipped in the polls. Yes, Lib Dem MPs benefit from the incumbency effect but that only stretches so far – we also need to start winning the air war, or at the very least avoid being ignored. As it stands, what Nick says just isn’t getting a listening. However unfair, it’s a reality we need to deal with.
Here are five suggestions from me for ways in which Nick Clegg could help restore party morale and maybe get himself a hearing from the media and public…
1. Announce Vince Cable will be the party’s shadow chancellor at the next election.
I’m told it’s a done deal that Danny Alexander will get the nod. That would be a mistake. We need a shadow chancellor with clout, utterly secure on the economics, savvy about the politics. As I pointed out a couple of months ago, Vince has done a masterful job of walking “the tightrope of respecting collective cabinet responsibility while signalling quite clearly when and why he disagrees with the Conservatives, most notably on immigration”. Party members also favour – by 63% to 28% – having Vince represent the Lib Dems in the ‘Ask the Chancellor’ debates.
2. Keep the party’s options open in the event of a ‘hung parliament’
Nick Clegg has publicly ruled out the option of a ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement in the event no single party wins a majority in May 2015 (ie, the party won’t join a formal coalition but wouldn’t bring down a minority government either). I can understand why he’s sceptical of such an arrangement – as I’ve argued before, “It seems to me a way of getting all the pain of coalition with little of the gain of being in government.” But we need to keep all options available to maintain maximum negotiating leverage. What matters most is how we can deliver liberal policies in the next parliament. That’s most likely to happen in a full coalition, but not at any price. Tim Farron was spot-on to argue, “When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe, and let the other party believe, that there is a point at which you would walk away, and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind, that is something we all have to consider.”
3. Appoint Jo Swinson to the cabinet in the autumn
As I wrote in Total Politics after last year’s reshuffle, “It’s shaming that a party which proudly proclaims its belief in equality has never yet appointed a female cabinet minister.” Jo Swinson might have been promoted then, but her maternity leave was just about to begin. Now returned to work as an accomplished Business Minister, she is the obvious candidate for elevation (though she herself may prefer to devote the time to her marginal constituency where she has a tough fight on her hands). It’s of course true that a reshuffle just a few months before an election – when ministers have little scope to initiate change – might be seen as little more than window dressing. But it would at least signal some intent to address the Lib Dems’ “male, pale and stale” problem at the top of our party.
4. Stop going to PMQs, start touring the country
Focus groups, I’m told, show the public is baffled why Nick Clegg simply sits next to David Cameron without ever speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions. To them, he appears mute, powerless, sidelined. Nick himself is scathing of this weekly parliamentary pantomime: “It is just so stuck in the nineteenth century and it is so stuck in this adversarial, yah-boo culture. It is going to have to change at some point.” He can’t change it now, but what he can do is steer clear of it. The time spent attending PMQs could be much better used. Nick’s aides are, according to the Daily Mail, advising him to ditch his Spanish family holiday volunteer “for a ‘summer of pain’ doing ordinary jobs outside Westminster”, modelled on Paddy Ashdown’s 1993 ‘Beyond Westminster’ tour of Britain. Ignore half that, Nick: you and your family need your holiday. But getting out of Westminster every Wednesday at 12 noon seems like a sound idea.
5. “Let Clegg Be Clegg”
In the first ‘Nick v Nigel’ debate, Nick was himself: Mr Reasonable: moderate, persuasive, reforming. Then his aides got spooked by the polls showing Farage won the post-debate polls. Nick was schooled to exhibit ersatz passion and crack creaky one-liners. It didn’t come naturally. The result? He lost the second debate by losing himself. Of course party leaders need staff and colleagues able to feed them good lines – but they have to be lines which can be spoken comfortably and sound authentic. The next time Nick is guaranteed a hearing from voters will be the first televised leaders’ debate (whenever that is, whatever its format). I want The Real Nick Clegg to stand up and stick up for what he believes in – in his own words.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.