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Clegg has quietly resigned from the lightning conductor role – which is to his advantage, but another problem for Cameron

Posted on 21 October 2012 | 9:10am

The reason we ended up with a coalition government is that the public did not want Labour back for a fourth term but they did not want the old Tory Party back either. So they chucked in the Lib Dems and said ‘you lot sort it out.’

Analysed coldly, David Cameron should have won the last election, when you consider the economic crash, the battering Gordon Brown was getting, the length of time Labour had been in power, MPs’ expenses, and the shiny new Tory leader getting such an easy ride.

But for all Cameron’s smart marketing skills, voters were frankly unsure about whether his so-called decontamination of the brand was anything more than a, well, smart marketing trick. The coalition was a way of putting the Tories on extended probation.

Public fears that it was all a marketing scam have been borne out, with Cameron moving from slogan to slogan, ‘top priority’ to top priority, make-it-up-as-you-go policy to make-it-up-as-you-go policy (what on earth was that energy tariff thing about?) and in the absence of clear and credible strategy, issues like Andrew Mitchell and the copper, and George Osborne and the ticket guard get disproportionate attention and with disproportionate impact.

But there is one other factor in Mr Cameron’s current troubles that has attracted very little attention from the commentariat. That is how Nick Clegg has ceased to act as a chief spokesman for the coalition as a whole.  That is working to Mr Clegg’s benefit and Mr Cameron’s disadvantage. Without Clegg constantly reminding us that he is part of the show – his Lib Dem colleagues have also gone more low profile – we are left with the impression of a bunch of Tories, and a pretty second rate bunch at that, in charge.

In the early heady days Clegg was out there happily defending the indefensible, from the broken pledge on tuition fees to the NHS reforms for which they had no mandate to the austerity cuts which along with Cameron he was always happy to blame on Labour.

I always felt he was taking on an oversized share of the load, and allowing himself to be used as a lightning conductor by the Tories. It is a lesson he appears to have learned. He is, I suspect, done with the fagging for his Old Etonian boss.

It is widely thought that Clegg, to use Ed Miliband’s word for Andrew Mitchell, is ‘toast’. I am not so sure. Certainly the tuition fees broken pledge will do him real damage at the next election, assuming he is still leader. But the Lib Dems’ share of the vote at the local elections was not as catastrophic as it might have been. Added to which my sense is that he has shown greater resilience than his coalition partners. For that reason above all, I have found my respect for him growing while my respect for Cameron diminishes every time he pops up on telly with yet another ‘look at me’ observation or activity reeking of tactics not strategy. (Tomorrow stand by for a speech on a new ‘tough but intelligent’ crime strategy. Presumably this is an admission that so far he has been tough but stupid, or soft but stupid, who knows?)

Sensibly, Mr Clegg has started to think a little more of his own and his party’s interests as we move into the second half of the Parliament.

People have grown weary of Lib Dems making threatening noises about Tory policy positions and then doing next to nothing to stop them. I sense they are now taking a different tack – just let the Tories do their own thing, and try not to be overly associated with such epic incompetence. So far, so good.

  • Val Stevens

    Not certain the repositioning will benefit the Libs or Clegg in the end. They have not many options left other than to distance themselves but that is what they do. Duck when the going gets tough. I accept that the electorate is not yet ready to give Labour a ringing endorsement next election but I don’t see any enthusiasm for the Libs either. All talk of this distancing and political tactics is precisely what puts people off politics. Your analysis relates to the survival of the Libs not for the greater benefit of the people. I think they are irrelevant to the latter.

  • I agree with a lot of this. The Lib Dems had a decent conference, with the message that they are holding the Tories in check coming over reasonably well: and that message “single party government? no thanks” – has to be their best hope.
    In one respect that maybe should not have surprised us – there was a reason why David Cameron was so pleased to get rid of Chris Huhne: the guy was an effective minister who refused to bow his head to the Tories. And Vince Cable is a soft target over his “guru of Richmond” malarkey, but on the other hand he hasn’t crumpled either.
    I am not convinced by the idea that Clegg himself is saveable though. Even now when he speaks he still tries to cast every reasonable compromise and tactical decision of government as some high moral statement – which of course means that when you make a tactical shift in another direction even to a slight degree, you look like a liar.In that respect Clegg is like an over-grown student politician. He will be with us for a while yet though, as how could it possibly be in anyone else’s short-term interest to take over as leader right now?

  • Kelvin MacDonald Fraser

    Nice one Alastair. In footballing circles this is what’s known as tapping up, is it not? What’s a nice lad like you doing in a Coalition like this Nick? Can I buy you a drink?

  • Olli Issakainen

    Second class.
    Yet another bad week for David Cameron.
    The support for the Tories is now 30%. They need 42% to win an overall majority.
    No government in modern times has INCREASED its popularity in office.
    Labour´s lead is not soft. A lot of voters are sure that they will vote Labour in 2015.
    Q3 figures will show growth, but do not believe that the economy is healing. Q3 will be positive thanks to extra bank holiday in previous quarter and Olympic ticket sales.
    Britain is, in fact, heading for triple-dip recession as Q4 will be negative – as the whole 2012 will be.
    Public sector net debt is now 67.9% of GDP, or £1.065tn. Back in 2010 it was 53.5%. In 2008 36%.
    According to Paul Krugman and Richard Layard excessive PRIVATE SECTOR borrowing and lending caused the financial crisis – not Labour overspending.
    Large deficits we see today are due to fall in output and in tax revenue.
    We need to balance the economy first – budget afterwards.
    Japan has 200% of GDP debt, yet it has low interest rates.
    Debt does not affect interest rates if a country has its own central bank. Osborne is wrong to say that markets would lose confidence if there is more government spending.
    Lord Howell, head of BIEE, is Osborne´s father-in-law. Members of BIEE include Shell, BP, BG and McKinsey.
    McKinsey is part of the huge network run by bankers. It employs many Rhodes scholars.
    Sir Mark Allen has an office at BP. He recently spoke at Chatham House about energy economy.
    David Cameron, Britain is not on the rise. Eurozone crisis is not over.
    For each decade since 1950s capitalism in the west has produced less growth.
    Now we have entered an era of zero or negative growth.
    Bankers who own 50% of global wealth now want to demolish capitalism and replace it with green communism based on sustainability.
    But this will only lead to more market orientation.
    After banking union there will be political union. United States of Europe will be created on the pretext of euro crisis.
    This undemocratic union will be lead by technocrats – a dream of socialists for centuries.
    David Cameron´s Aspiration Nation is fantasy.
    He also forgets that a lot of benefits go to people who are at work.
    IMF now says that FISCAL MULTIPLIERS are not around 0.5, but between 0.9 and 1.7. Austerity will not work in Britain – or Europe.
    Under Messrs Cameron and Osborne Britain is on the road to ruin.
    And unlike Mr Osborne – Britain is not even travelling in the first class…

  • Could I venture to say people are angry with not weary of the Lib Dems seeming to do nothing to stop Tory policy.They have lost a lot of support eg.teachers,nurses,students and the rest..taking an even further back seat now will seem, to the lay person, the only useful purpose they’ve served is to enable the Tories..

  • Anonymous

    Think Clegg has finally realised that Dave is flying by the seat of his trousers. And he has also got to think of the health of the LibDems, of course, which by his poor judgement has been driving them out of existence in floating voters minds.

  • Alastair, I agree with your analysis of the last General Election Campaign and the re-branding, as it were, of the Conservative Party by Mr Cameron & Co.

    It seems to me that the fundamental problem, across the political spectrum, in British politics today is that there is an almost complete vaccum when it comes to vision.
    Whether you agreed with him or not and I must confess to falling into the latter camp, at least Mr Blair had the appearance of holding a vision (you are in a far better position than I am to know whether this vision actually existed or not) of what he believed Britains future should be (as did Mrs Thatcher) and that is something to be respected if not necessarily agreed with.

    This problem of vision, I believe, arises from the, seemingly, vast majority of frontbench politicians in the 3 major parties who have spent their entire working lives in politics with little or no experiance of so-called real life. This is true irrespective of class or education as Messers Milliband can hardly lay claim to have grown up in the real world being, as they were, raised within the intellectual elite of the left.
    This insulation from the real world, seems to have led to the unfortunate situation of the political goal being to get into Number 10 rather than what to do once you get there. Downing Street appears to have become the ends rather than the means.

    If I were advising Mr Cameron I would tell him to stop trying to soft soap the electorate, set out a clear agenda based on traditional Conservative values of individual responsibility and stick to it. I fear that it is too late now for him to do that but I suspect it could have delivered a majority Tory govt at the last election had he been less concerned with the packaging and more concerned with the substance.

  • Simon

    What on earth will we have to complain about on this page if Ed Miliband ever becomes PM ?

  • Mabozza Ritchie

    In his diaries, Chris Mullin opines that Nick Clegg is “easily the biggest charlatan of the lot” in that he can argue both sides of an argument with equal aplomb. His point being, I think, that he lacks deep conviction and is more the opportunist. Small wonder he has trust issues.

  • Agree with what you’re saying Alastair but I’m intrigued by you raising Clegg’s betrayal of students over fees when Labour were the party in power who instigated fees in the first place! Ken Livingstone had it right when he said it was whipping away the ladder of opportunity which had been climbed already by the ministers in charge. I admittedly have a vested interest in that one though.

    What really concerns me – particularly as a Scot residing in Scotland – is that I genuinely feel that Labour does not represent me anymore. More and more I hear my friends describe their political affiliation as Conservative. Scotland is in turmoil with the independence issue and Ruth Davidson is lapping it up. You say folk have grown weary of Nick Clegg and I absolutely 100% agree with you, but to think that leaves the way clear for Labour is dangerous and naive.

  • It seems that Nick Clegg has at last dropped Cameron as the love of his life. This does leave conservatives actually getting the blame for the many mistakes they make.

    Personally I can’t see Nick Clegg being the leader of the Lib Dems for the next general election. The Lib Dems must realise that they would do better with just about anyone else.

    However Nick Clegg no doubt hopes that he will indeed be the leader of the Lib Dems.

    I think that there will be a gradual reduction in the Lib Dems criticising Labour in the years running up to the general election. They know that a very likely route to power for them again is to be in a coalition with Labour.

    That business at PMQ’s about everyone getting the lowest tariff for energy was surely a major indicator that David Cameron is losing it. He just made that up on the spot because he didn’t have any decent response to Milliband’s question.

  • Anonymous

    Lets stop pretending that lessons have been learnt after two and a half years in opposition. The reason why there is little trust in politicians because lessons have clearly not been learnt. I don’t have to remind you alistair of how power relations continue to erode membership democracy in the party at a local level. Refounding Labour is an absolute farce. There is a catastrophe awaiting to happen when Labour members realise that refounding Labour is more about control freakery, positive discrimination and centralisation.
    Blairism is dead. You concentrate on Clegg and Cameron when Labour is clearly still not trusted by the public
    There are many little fish who are wading and swimming through the currents of nepotism and inequality. Practises that are forbidden in public services but tolerated internally are becoming much more frequent. Many little fish who are given no support and are overlooked grow into bigger fish with added weight, maturity and intelligence. They begin to remember how the little fish were once bullied, ignored and taken for granted. The little fish left then follow the big fish who in turn are too strong for other fellow big fish.The big fish creates an army of little fish who fight back.
    I say to all the little fish if the party does not change swim the current, keep on swimming but don’t turn back. Grow in to big, big fish.

  • Anonymous

    We currently have a situation where simultaneously, in the same country, we are told that we are not educating enough people, but that at the same time IT firms cannot get enough trained workers. Why? Because 50% of us are subsidised through university to do whatever bullshit course we want. We do need to inject market forces into university education, or expect to keep getting the same problems.
    However, even if you agree with tuition fees, you should still think that someone who reneges on a solemn pledge to his electors, should never be able to hold office ever again. Break a clegg.,

  • Dave Simons

    I have no respect whatsoever for Mrs Thatcher’s so-called vision. Having a vision is not necessarily a good thing which commands respect. Hitler had a vision for Germany in the 1930s, which unfortunately a lot of people in powerful positions in the UK respected and wanted imported. Thatcher wanted to drag everything back, back, back, and we’re still heading in that direction. I sometimes wake up and wonder if I’m in 2012 or back in the 1950s when I read things in the press.
    But I agree that the current crop of politicians are little more than a bunch of careerists and it’s refreshing to mix with less-insulated people outside the Westminster bubble who are above all that. It’s a pity, by the way, to see the Conservative Party appropriate individual responsibilty as one of their key values. It should be a key value of all political tendencies.

  • Dave Simons

    I suggest you read the page more closely – then you’ll realise what a stupid comment you’ve made.

  • Anonymous

    Voters are narrow minded, when push come to shove Dave Simons, so Alastair pointing out that if it wasn’t for 2008 western-World capitalism crash, Dave C would be still fannying about opposite to the Gord.

    And Thatcher and vision, yes. She was always stuck in her dad’s corner shop in Lincolnshire, gossiping, in her mind, as a tory PM puppet, a middle class tory done good. She was a british political tramp, myself think, prostituted her background and married a far right-wing Ivan the Terrible, generally known as Denis, the oil wealth ripper-offer.

    Thatcher the milk snatcher she is, and to think she was a mother! Look how her son turned out? What a plonker he was/is. Carol is alright though, it seems.

  • Anonymous

    Many university students are being conned into doing “nothing” degrees, to bump up the funds coming into said institutions.

    It is all toxic, and it all started when Polys decided not to be polys anymore, during the warped games of Thatcher’s lot.

    Tax your brain, and do a combined science/maths and humanties course, for fair mind balance, I say. That is what I would recommend Unis to promote.

  • Anonymous

    The weather? Supposed to get a bit chilly this Friday. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you! : )

    Get your de-icer in now for the motor’s windows and door seals from your local supermarket, get them before they go up in market forces elasticity prices. And check your anti-freeze concentration in your radiator! We could be snowed in soon.

  • Alastair, there are a number of factors to the Liberal Democrat positioning for the next General Election that really need to taken into account.

    The first is that the majority of Lib Dem parliamentary seats are Tory facing, and their constituents are therefore left with the option (from a Labour perspective) of voting Lib Dem to stop the Tories or voting Labour and letting the Tories in. In addition the majority of Lib Dem target seats are also Tory facing, and therefore Labour voters will have the choice of voting Lib Dem or letting the Tories back in.

    The second is that boundary review. When the Tories withdrew their support for Lords reform they effectively killed off a significant reduction in the number of Labour safe seats. The boundary review would have been very bad for Labour and Clegg’s decision not to back it scuppers the Torie’s in built electoral advantage at the next General Election.

    The third issue is Scottish Independence. There is only one Tory seat in Scotland and the rest are Labour, SNP and Lib Dem. All of those seats could be removed from the equation if Scotland votes for independence, and that makes the likelihood of a majority Labour Government at any point in the future even more remote, even a Lib-Lab coalition would be unlikely to secure enough seats for a majority.

    As for Clegg himself, the Liberals have despatched of their last 5 leaders ruthlessly at the time of their own choosing. What makes you think that this one will be any different?

  • Anonymous

    Alastair, since Cleggover is supposed to be a Sheffield MP, for the posh area there, a song for such him, from donkies years ago, by fellas who have Sheffield stainless steel cutlery running through their veins,

    Hope this shames the poor-minded orange immigrant!

  • Anonymous

    This is a good analysis, both of how we ended up with a coalition government and what the Lib Dems are doing now.

    Clegg sold the NHS down the river and there will be plenty of people at the next election not allowing him to forget it – assuming he’s as ‘resilient’ as AC claims. Personally I think he will now struggle to convince the electorate that he believes in anything at all, other than Nick Clegg.

    Contrary to what ‘adrian mcmenamin’ says on this thread, I did not have the impression that the Lib Dems had a decent conference – as a group of people they came across as judgement day deniers, in a little world of their own.

  • Anonymous

    ‘Renege’, that will rule out all 3 parties and not just Clegg, remember the ‘promises’ on a referendum pre Lisbon?

  • Anonymous

    Slight problem with this Ehtch as not everyone is a potential scientist/mathematician. Reaguns has a point about spurious uni courses but the arts do have a place in uni education.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t have to be, Liberalreform, those that scraped a pass or failed GCSE maths or sciences, Unis will include that in the course for such to catch up with the rest of us human true mortals.

  • Anonymous

    Not going to say how Thatcher’s dad played the WWII war time ration books, or have I!

  • Anonymous

    I couldn’t agree with you more, and this is somewhat opportunistic picking on Clegg as if he is the only one who has done it, nonetheless it would set a good precedent.
    The commentariat are largely left wing, and Clegg has broken his promise to carry out a left wing action, that is why he is being eviscerated.
    Had he promised to shoot drug dealers, or get out of Europe, or invade Syria and reneged on the promise, no one would have an issue in the commentariat. I would. I believe politicians should have convictions, should say what they will do if elected, and should do so if elected, and should be held to account if they fail to do so, hence I back the recall mechanism.

  • Anonymous

    Arts do have a place indeed, but I believe market forces should still apply. If you get a high mark from a top institution in an arts degree you can go on to benefit the country and yourself finding work in advertising and other creative industries which are just as much if not more profitable than manufacturing, you can be a journalist or heaven forbid an MP, likewise having done the degree you can still go into law or banking or whatever.
    I do not think taxpayers however should have to fund people to do arts courses which do not have an economic benefit however, ie people who get low marks and go to study arts at a low ranked institution where easily accessible facts will show they will not get a job based on that degree, they’d be better just doing a-levels.
    People then tell me “Oh but university benefits people in other ways, it broadens the mind, its not all about economics.” Fine, but then it would only be fair to send every kid to university regardless of marks.
    I think education should only be state funded up until the age that everyone gets it. Once we say, right you lot can’t take education any further, you’re too thick, the other lot shouldn’t then be funded to take it further. There might be inequality anyway but why assist the inequality?! It’s bizarre. Surely labour should not support this.

  • Anonymous

    I think if Ed Miliband becomes PM we will have plenty to complain about!
    (That does not mean I think he would be worse than Cameron. Cameron has made an improvement in the past two weeks but I think it is too little too late, and most importantly insincere. The man has no beliefs, no vision, beyond his belief in himself as a prime minister. A stapler company somewhere is missing a middle manager / pr man due to Cameron being PM.)

  • “George?”

    “Yes, Dave.”

    “How much money have we got?”

    “Not a lot, Dave.”

    “I want to give some more away.”

    “What is it this time?”

    “Don’t get stroppy with me, George. Or
    you’ll regret it.”


    “Yes, you will. I’m going to make myself
    President. See. Hire and fire. And I can give away what I like.”

    “Oh. Right, Dave.”

    “That’ll be Mr. President from now on,
    George. Now, I need some money to get tough on crime.”
    “I’m sorry?”
    “Er..why, Mr. President?”
    “To give the media something to talk about, of course. What else?”

  • Iain, you make some good points about the unpredictability of a collapse in the LibDem vote and how it may in some seats benefit Tories rather than Labour. It is also true that a Yes to independence vote in Scotland will definitely be bad news for Labour in Westminster.

    However the effect shouldn’t be overstated. If Labour win with a large majority, as current opinion polls suggest, their likely overall loss from Scottish seats will be about 23 (currently 41 Labour, 18 other). Of course there is no guarantee opinion polls will stay as they are, but I don’t think a vote for independence will be as catastrophic for Labour in the remaining UK, as is often suggested.

    That’s not to say I support the Yes vote, by the way, as I think all parts of the UK will suffer economically, politically and culturally if we break up.

  • LibDems are starting to think about where they go from here. At a consistent 9% in the opinion polls many of their MPs will be pondering their future, and I am sure most of them recognize that Nick Clegg will not take the backlash alone. Voters will not forget they all signed that pledge and almost all of them supported the devastating NHS ‘reforms’.

    I suspect they are also starting to realize they were wrong to back plan A. Osborne’s failures become clearer by the day and the closer they stay to their coalition partners, the more likely they are to be tarred with the same ‘incompetence’ brush.

    Ed Miliband’s excellent performance at the Labour Party Conference and Labour’s good showing in the opinion polls are also piling on the pressure. The only (remote) hope of another whiff of power for the LibDems, is to hang on to the coat tails of the party likely to poll most votes. That won’t be easy. In opposition they polled well in 2010 by projecting an image of being further left than Labour, a position that’s hardly going to work now.

    To be honest I don’t think anything can save them now. After 2015, from a low base in opposition they will have to rebuild. That’s a very slow process and I can’t see them back in government for a long time to come.

  • I agree that Cameron is losing it. Under pressure at the despatch box, he doesn’t seem in full control of himself. His off the top of his head commitment on half-baked policy and the petulant response to Chris Bryant, confirmed a growing image of him as superficial and out of his depth.

  • Anonymous

    I’m guessing they would all ‘claim’ to have convictions and that they all entered public life for the betterment of man and certainly not for the money. Unfortunately, they seem to think they can live their ‘business’ lives with rules that are slightly different from those most of us have to accept from our employers. The expenses was one example and Mitchell another.

    They would also claim that they are held to account each time an election comes round and have you noticed how the recall promise has sort of disappeared?

    I think they should be held personally responsible for their actions so for example, if the government insists on the army using unsafe vehicles in Iraq or Afghanistan then the responsible minister should be liable in court. I won’t go near the finances but the same principle should apply. There is currently a way out for them after they’ve completely cocked up things and no come back by us. Perhaps then they would be a bit more careful over their doctrines and actions.

  • Nick K

    Forget about the expenses scandal and forget about the public image of Brown .There is in my mind no doubt that if Nick Clegg had got in bed with Labour ,he together with Vince Cable would have found a way to put the country on a better path than the one they chose .There is not much daylight between the better thinking Lib Dems and Labour . Unfortunatly they have now lost all credibility and will never convince the public to vote them in the numbers they did last time .Consequently they will be well “Toasted” at the next election !.The only way they can recover an ounce of respect is if they at some time force a vote of confidence in the house and let the people have their say on getting rid of these posh boys !!!

  • Anonymous

    I support that, at least I support the ideal, there would be practical difficulties.
    But the recall mechanism is one simple thing, and yes I have noticed it disappearing. We want accountability. I would start with recalls, open primaries, making bankers have unlimited liability, and making all government payments linked somehow either to gdp or tax, ie you get £100 of X payment this year, if the economy shrinks by 5% you get £95 next year. That would focus the minds on growth and accountability.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t think “convictions” come into it reaguns. They were good for nothing for society after their education other than bother the rest of us irrationally, and enter the closed world of politics.

    They wouldn’t know how to wipe the arse of anyone even if a rag was shoved into their hands and shown how to do it. Up their own bumholes the coalition leaders are, and also almost 100% of the tory party. And that includes senior civil (tory) servants, with reference army trucks.

    Feckless the lot of them are – subjugate responsibilty onto others with their inherited wealth. Don’t know they’re born, the lot of them are.

    It’s all historical modern day nepotism, as the beeb, in action, and it stinks.

  • Anonymous

    You’ve been reading my mind again reaguns! Maybe this way they would take a bit more care and responsibility for their actions rather than treating it as a plaything or a stepping stone to greater things!

  • Anonymous

    Tidy post, my response;

    “George, what is that smirk on your face, again?”, says Dave Cee.

    “I think we have conned them again, my Dave”, says George.

    Says Dave, “The electorate? Do you think so George? Oh goody!”.

    prats, ey?