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Deep disillusion in deepest Cleggland; will he defect?

Posted on 29 October 2010 | 9:10am

To deepest Cleggland last night, and if Mark Mardell thinks Barack Obama has disillusion problems, he should get himself to Sheffield for some of the real thing.

I was speaking at the University Students’ Union, as part of Sheffield’s Off The Shelf Literary Festival. To be fair, one or two in the audience stuck to the Clegg line that the deputy PM was doing his best to repair the mess left by Labour (line to take Numero Uno in all coalition speeches and interviews).

But majority opinion seemed to be elsewhere. At the book-signing afterwards, he was variously described to me as toast, a traitor, and a lost cause.

I was asked during the q and a what I would do if I was Clegg’s PR advisor. Interesting question. First I made a crack about tie selection – the Cameron blue, Clegg yellow/orange thing is beginning to grate. More seriously, I said he had to stop bleating, and start wising up to how he is being used as a kind of human shield for Tory ideology.

People understand that politicians have difficult decisions to make and defend. But all this ‘I lie awake at night wondering if I have done the right thing, and I say to Miriam how torn I am about having to stand on my head every time I stand up in public’ is not going to endear himself to people.

Likewise over time, provided Labour starts to push back against the coalition line to take Numero Uno, it will become clear just what nonsense it is that all these difficult decisions arose from them finding hitherto undisclosed economic problems when they ‘looked at the books’ blah. Given how had they said the books were going to be, when they were campaigning, they have given no evidence of any major surprises when they arrived.

As we were at the university, tuition fees were a big problem for Clegg. As I have said before, I have some sympathy with the need further to revise tuition fees, not least as a way of ensuring we do not go back to making university education an elite activity.

But Clegg and his fellow Lib Dems all stood waving their placards with their pledges and he should not be surprised to take a hit.

So stop bleating. Be clear with people that the coalition was the only way that the Lib Dems were going to get their hands on (limited) power. Explain more clearly why that matters. Be honest about the bits you like and the bits you don’t, but stop expecting people to believe you like it all. And stop swallowing the Tory line on everything.

He needs a bigger sense of who he is and what he is for and how he thinks the kind of politics his supporters voted for is influencing the government. It is not there at the moment. The public will give them a bit of time, but if they sense Tory ideology is behind these cuts, and he is the political cover, he will pay a big price.

One of his former voters told me she felt he would see the writing on the wall closer to the election, and get DC to find him a safe Tory seat, which he would take on the grounds that his party was not prepared to take the really tough decisions required for government.

Might sound a bit far-fetched. But not that long ago so would the idea of Clegg and Cable slashing public services left, right and centre.

  • Alex K

    A student union full of Lefties? There’s a shocker!

  • John HW

    Agree with most of this, but before the LibDems took Sheffield Hallam in 1997, it had always been a safe Tory seat. Labour has never, ever been remotely close to taking it. So, it will be very interesting to see what happens. It is much more likely that the Tories will retake it, which would be exquisitely worse for Clegg than a Labour victory. Look out for massive drops in the LibDem vote all over Sheffield at the next election – a place where they had, for some strange reason, been gaining support fast in the last couple of elections.

  • Gobannian

    You are much too generous to Clegg. He is not being used by the Tories. He is a Tory. There are lots of people who voted Liberal who aren’t and probably quite a few MP’s, though they seem happy to swallow their principles. The only reason Clegg isn’t a Tory MP now is that he disagreed with their line on Europe in the 1990’s.

  • Chris lancashire

    I don’t think Clegg will be bothered for at least another 4 years, so your well meaning advice isn’t needed.

  • Dave Simons

    I was at the Sheffield University/Off the Shelf meeting last night in the Octagon and thought it was a very lively and interesting debate which left me feeling a little more optimistic. Over the last five months I’ve been reminded of a saying attributed to Joseph Goebbels – ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it’. This seems to me to have been the Coalition’s tactic since the General Election deal – blame it all on the mountain of debt left by profligate Labour – and it has been and continues to be parroted to an excruciatingly irritating degree at local level by LibDem Sheffield Councillors (we don’t have any Tory ones). I have despaired at the lack of counter-arguing from Labour, but at long last I get a sense that it’s changing. Are we supposed to suffer from collective amnesia or did the Tories not pledge to match Labour’s public spending plans until things went globally pear-shaped in the latter half of 2008 and Labour had to do the big bank bail-out? Did the LibDems not agree with Labour until May 2010 that cutting too hard and too soon would jeopardise a fragile recovery? The rest of the Goebbels quote is, ‘The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie’. When the cuts begin to translate into everyday experience perhaps we’ll see how long this Coalition lie can be maintained.

  • toni

    . “but if they sense Tory ideology is behind these cuts, and he is the political cover, he will pay a big price.”

    Did you mean to say ‘but as realisation dawns that Tory ideology is behind the cuts, and that he wholeheartedly supports it, he’s toast’

    As for seeing the writing on the wall before the next election, my other half ; as generous as the you and the public are, said when I read this post to him.. you can see it in his face, he knows he’s f***ed already…

  • alan

    I can easily see Clegg,Alexander Laws and Cable defecting before the next election i have big doubts the first 3 will be in the libdems at the end of each week let alone a year so for me it’s a matter of time before they’re found safe seat.

    Cable too i think will go but only if the chance of power is still within his grasp if it looks like the Tories will lose the next election he’ll stay a libdem,if not off he’ll go of that i have no doubt either way i can see only a broken libdem party post next election (whenever that may be).

  • Carol Fisher

    Clegg’s problem is that many people see his decision to go with the Tories as him wanting to get into government and this coalition was his only chance, particularly as it was said he and Gordon Brown didn’t like each other at all.

    I think casting aside all this principles (or what he said during the election campaign) is despicable.

  • I read politics at Sheffield University and still love the City very much. It just does not need Clegg and he cannot possibly expect to keep his seat. More and more he comes across as someone who’s completely lost his way and yes he probably deserves to be a Tory. Good blog.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Market liberals have taken over the the Lib Dems. Small government and free markets are the order of the day. But Nick Clegg has ditched the social conservative part of Thatcherism.
    But the main enemy of Mr Clegg is the social democratic wing inside his own party. Nick Clegg´s political project is to reclaim liberal philosophy from right.
    In 2008 Nick Clegg in his LSE speech said that state should take care of health and education – services should be supplied by private sector. This was a fundamental reorientation of the party. It has had new values ever since.
    Is Mr Clegg compromising his principles in the coalition? Has he sold his soul for power? The answer is no. The coalition´s programme reflects in large part Clegg´s brand of liberalism. He has so far compromised little.
    Mr Clegg´s Bid Idea is to replace British social democracy with his version of Thatcher model. 1980s market liberalism of the Conservative party has now spread across Britain.
    The Liberal Unionists in 1886, and the Liberal Nationals in 1931, were swallowed by their Conservative coalition partners. What will happen in 2015?
    The Lib Dems are down to 10% in the polls. We are unlikely to witness another dose of Cleggmania.
    Much depends on what happens with AV, and whether the Lib Dems will manage to portray the current austerity as “progressive”.

  • Nicky

    I agree. What I find the most objectionable aspect of Clegg – which came out very clearly in his interview with Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs – is all the self justification and self delusion. He used to be perceived as one of the ‘good guys’ – and he’s desperate to cling onto that (despite it being at odds with his actions and choices) – which means all sorts of twisting of the truth and mental gymnastics.

    Clegg is a major culprit of the ‘Labour’s mess’ mantra. (The Big Lie that they’re hoping to mesmerise the benighted masses with.) However, he didn’t help his credibility by being caught out by inventing a meeting with Mervyn King in which he claimed he had some kind of Damascene conversion that conveniently cancelled out everything he’d said about the economy pre-election. To his credit, King refused to play ball and said this meeting never happened (presumably the Coalition had expected him to go along with the deception).

    I expect you saw Charlie Brooker’s grimly hilarious piece on Clegg in Monday’s Guardian, on how Clegg has become ‘Cleggsy Bear’ – the cute and cuddly face masking the horrible reality –
    following each unpleasant new announcement, Cleggsy Bear shuffles on stage to defend it, working his sad eyes and boyish face as he morosely explains why the decision was inevitable – and not just inevitable, but fair; in fact possibly the fairest, most reasonable decision to have been taken in our lifetimes, no matter how loudly people scream to the contrary.

  • John HW

    He won’t lose his seat to Labour though – not a snowball’s chance in hell of Labour winning in Hallam. Much more likely to lose it to the Tories – what a sensation that would be!

  • Robert Jackson

    Keeping these comments on political theory – such fun! – I think NC is falling foul of Machiavelli’s discussion on whether it is better for a prince to be feared or loved. And the importance of not becoming hated. And having the ability to do harm.

    Clegg’s LibDems always try to come across as likeable.

    They do not exude any ability to be ruthless in their own right (only under the Tories coat-tails).

    That leaves them in the position of being hated without the prospect of making themselves either feared or loved.

    Not a good place to be.

  • HallamVoter

    This is all very interesting but bears more resemblance to a plotline in
    The Thick of It, rather than the complex ploitical reality of coalition
    govt. Clegg’s father is a Tory and he worked for Leon Brittan. He had
    ample opportunity to take that path if he so wished. Clegg is a liberal to
    his fingertips and will never ‘defect’. In 5 short months the Lib Dems
    have delivered significant policy initiatives, taking a million low paid
    out of income tax, reforming criminal justice to REDUCE prison numbers,
    tackling climate change, building 150,000 new low cost and social housing,
    freeing up & simplifying local authority finance (90 funding streams down
    to 10), allowing local authorities to collect & retain business rates etc

    Clegg massively increased his majority to over 15,000. Some of those may
    prefer the luxurious moral high ground or permanent opposition to the
    practicalities of coalition. Clegg took power to implement Lib Dem policy,
    not for some self aggrandisement. I am proud to have him as my MP

    • KDouglas

      A massively increased majority, eh? Obviously a lot of people in Sheffield believed Clegg when he said during the election that he was against a rise in tuition fees. I agree with AC that Clegg’s breast beating about how tough it is to make a Faustian pact is very dull.

      You say Clegg is a liberal to his fingertips but I think anyone who is not a Lib Dem insider would struggle to know what Clegg and therefore his party stand for any more. He and some of the Lib Dem top table seems to be at odds with many in the party.

      I also have to question your statement about social housing – the Con Dems are putting pitifully little new funding into social housing at the same time that housing benefits are to be cut. Local authorities are losing over one quarter of their budgets – do I need to go on?

  • Nick

    “Be honest about the bits you like and the bits you don’t, but stop expecting people to believe you like it all.”

    How can Clegg (or any Cabinet Minister) do that without undermining the whole principle of collective Cabinet responsibility?

  • Richard

    Your attemps to rewrite history are amazing: have you forgotten Brown’s desperate attempt to hold on to power at any price, by trying for an alliance with Clegg’s men? He had insulted them for years calling them the Liberal Party, but he would have jumped through any hoop to stay in Downing St and in power. And you were advising him. What would your advice to Clegg have been?

  • Simon Landau

    I look over Clegg’s constituency every morning when I open the curtains and try to work out what is different from May 8. Yes, students, teachers, local government and manufacturing managers are very disillusioned with him but I am not sure that constitutes a collapse of his vote more a return to the Richard Allen days – he just isn’t up to the pressure. I look more at the lessons for future coalition makers. First, take your time and make an agreement that is informed by the views of the electorate AFTER the election and tell Gus O’Donnell to stuff his advice on the stability of markets. The Coalition Agreement is a masterpiece of pushmepullyou fudge that leaves all LibDems other than Alexander acting bereft of principle. Second, if you go out on a limb and sign pledges (first tuition fees, then fairness) prepare for government to find you out. Third, if you say ‘fairness is hardwired into everything we do’ then make the hardwiring transparent otherwise (as now) it just becomes ‘fairness is what I say it is’.

  • Matthew

    ‘I have some sympathy with the need further to revise tuition fees, not least as a way of ensuring we do not go back to making university education an elite activity.’ What? So putting up tuition fees makes university education less elitist? I don’t think so Mr Campbell.

  • Quinney

    When you look at the scalpel being used in parliament to cut jobs and services and observe the coalition front bench as the order papers are waved to the sound of cheering, can you spot the tory? Clegg and Alexander look perfectly happy in their new home.

  • Pamo50

    You come across as “Mr. Amenable” but all the time you are stirring and stirring.

    I think you are so used to stirring and spinning that you don’t know you are doing it.

    And please don’t get your “minions” to reply. I don’t want the forces of hell heaped on me.

    You will get your comeuppance.

  • Alastair, careful! You’re giving free advice to the enemy!

    That said, your advice is not rocket science. Lib Dem bloggers everywhere have been saying much the same thing. The real question is whether he will take it on board – and if he doesn’t, will he keep his seat?

  • David Turner

    I enjoyed your visit to our City last night and very much agree that the media is giving the Coalition an easy ride and this “blame it on the last lot” nonsense is a smokescreen. The Tories have got our hapless local MP exactly where they want him so they can go about their business doing exactly what they have always wanted to behind the veneer of Clegg bemoaning the fact that he is having to make all the tough calls “for the sake of the national interest”. We used to be called the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire now we’re know as Cleggland. Where did it all go wrong.

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  • Agree. Cannot see where and how Lib Dem. thinking is impacting on Tory policy. Seems only inconsequential Lib Dem commitments are being adhered to. And that these issues (eg: childcare for ‘poor’ 2 yr olds) are being championed in face of draconian cuts to welfare state makes them more irritating.

  • HallamVoter

    A reminder for Samantha & others how Lib Dem thinking has impacted on Tory policy in 6 short months:
    A million of the poorest workers taken out of income tax
    Scrapping ID cards and stopping child detention for immigrants
    Increasing capital gains tax and clamping down on tax evasion & avoidance
    Action to cut prison numbers and tackle reoffending rates
    Investing £7bn in a ‘fairness premium’ to help disadvantaged pupils
    Launching a Green Investment Bank to invest in low-carbon technology and new jobs
    Action to create 70,000 new jobs in the offshore wind industry

    Is that enough to be getting on with?