Nick Clegg: Should he stay or should he go?
That is a question that the Liberal Democrats have to answer.
Lib Dem Voice reported yesterday that in response to former MP Lembit Opik’s call for Clegg to step down as leader before the end of the year – but, curiously, continuing to serve as Deputy Prime Minister until 2015 – LDV have surveyed party members’ views on the issue. The outcome of the poll makes fascinating reading.
59% of Lib Dem members wish for Nick Clegg to lead the party into the 2015 General Election. 34 % however want him to be replaced, while 8% have no opinion. (I know the arithmetic doesn’t add up – 59 + 34 + 8 = 101 – but I didn’t compile the statistics). What is obvious is that at least 41`% of party members are sufficiently displeased or unconvinced by Clegg’s leadership that they are not supportive of him continuing as leader for much longer. How many more members’ support is hanging by a thread or is lent only for the purposes of ensuring stability the poll doesn’t say. What is quite clear though is that Clegg has something of a credibility problem among party members as well as the public.
In the past, I’ve been broadly supportive of the coalition while disagreeing with its policy direction. I am a pluralist; I believe in collaborative approaches and coalition government. After all, we experienced eight years of Labour – Lib Dem government in Scotland and, while that posed its own challenges, difficulties were managed far more effectively than they are currently at Westminster. Lest we forget, there were those in 1999 keen to accuse Jim Wallace of “selling out” on principles but he proved a capable leader (and acting First Minister when required), delivering on policy while ensuring that the Lib Dem “brand” retained both its distinctiveness and its popularity. It could be argued, with some justification, that it was easier working with Scottish Labour than it is with Cameron’s Conservatives. I actually agree with that analysis, but also feel that there are lessons that Clegg could and should have learned from Scotland’s experience of coalition, especially in regards cultivating a personal credibility.
Jim Wallace made some key mistakes. The Liberal Democrats also were unable to implement their entire policy programme, as would be expected of any minor partner in a coalition government. Sometimes relations between the parties’ MSPs were strained. But what Wallace was able to do was to ensure that the party gained far more from being in coalition than it would have done outside – especially as far as credibility was concerned. So, while they were unable to deliver the full deal on tuition fees the Lib Dems did ensure that an independent commission was established, which made recommendations not too far short of the party’s policy position. The handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis, Wallace’s effective deputising for Donald Dewar, the party’s consistent position on the Section 28 debate and the introduction of free care for the elderly all contributed to positive public perceptions of the party.
Admittedly, the Liberal Democrats in Scotland made few electoral gains in the period between 1999 and 2007. But they retained what they had, in spite of being in coalition and inevitably losing some of their identity in the process. This is in stark contrast to the party’s performances under Nick Clegg, under whom we have experienced electoral massacres of virtually unprecedented scale in the Scottish parliamentary and successive local election campaigns.
It is not, therefore, the coalition itself that I blame for the party’s difficulties. It is the actions of a leadership that has lacked either the insight or the knowledge to adapt itself to some of the realities of coalition government. Collective responsibility is a vital component of coalition, but it is far from the only one. Coalition is not alliance; there is no requirement for a shared identity. And of course, it’s not simply the policy direction that voters or party members have issues with, but the credibility of the leadership and key ministers. Clegg has mishandled most of the major issues he’s had to deal with; he seems to lack any idea of how to make coalition work for the party; his leadership style is one of obstinacy verging on arrogance; his personal image has contributed to the party’s annihilation in three elections and is unquestionably a serious liability.
After the disastrous Scottish parliamentary elections I wrote to Nick Clegg as a defeated candidate, suggesting that the cause of Scottish liberalism has been put back fifty years. I received the standard reply: “working hard in government...cannot achieve everything we want to.” I found it quite insulting given the broader points I was making in respect to the party’s identity and political credibility. A year later and I’m not too sure I was right. The party hasn’t simply been put back fifty years under Clegg’s leadership – we’ve been sent backwards without any hope of recovery. While we have many talented people within the party, there is no Jo Grimond waiting in the wings to move us forward. Neither are the grassroots movements sufficiently strong to provide the required liberal renaissance, while local parties are haemorrhaging support.
The problem isn’t simply the coalition, it’s Nick Clegg. Rightly or wrongly, he is perceived as “the party”. In the public view, he encompasses everything that the Liberal Democrats are about. When he is associated, admittedly sometimes unfairly, with dishonesty and exchanging principle for power, that does not bode well for our future success. When he shows no sign of turning around negative perceptions but simply reinforces them it is only right that questions should be asked about his future as leader.
To put the potential damage into some kind of context, I looked at the General Election results of 2010 and, using the data from local, Scottish parliamentary and London Assembly elections held since (while also taking into account prospective boundary changes) have made some predictions for 2015. I understand that if a week in politics is a long time then three years is an eternity. I know that General Elections are a series of local constituency elections and that unpredictable things can happen. However, by transferring the swings and voting percentages from these elections onto the projected political map a picture emerges. Only sixteen (Nick Clegg, Andrew Stunnell, Tom Brake, Alistair Carmichael, Chris Huhne, Norman Baker, Vince Cable, Jeremy Browne, Tim Farron, Ed Davey, Bob Russell, Don Foster, David Laws, John Pugh, Norman Lamb and Mark Williams) would be returned if voters continue to cast ballots as they have in 2011 and 2012. A further six (Paul Burstow, Julian Huppert, Adrian Sanders, Nick Harvey, Dan Rogerson and Alan Beith) I would say have more than reasonable chances of retaining their seats. There aren’t any women in that list, and the erosion of confidence in the party could potentially lose people such as Jo Swinson, Simon Hughes, Malcolm Bruce, Michael Moore, John Thurso and Lorely Burt their seats. We would be reduced to one MP in Scotland – perhaps two if Charles Kennedy rather than Danny Alexander is put forward for the redesigned seat taking in much of the two existing constituencies.
That is not a thoroughly scientific analysis and there will undoubtedly be those who think differently. However, the message is obvious. If we want our parliamentary representation to be reduced by more than half, keep on as we are. If not, change is required.
Lib Dems have been unusually patient with Nick Clegg. Former party leaders haven’t fared so well. David Steel was never popular with the membership, being perceived as light on policy, and was famously defeated during the defence debate at the Liberal conference in 1986. Ashdown’s closeness with Labour was looked on with suspicion, with members ensuring that the “triple lock” of the Southport Resolution would prevent the leader from agreeing entry into a coalition without the support of the parliamentary party and the Federal Party Executive. Kennedy was more popular with members, but had his own battles with parliamentarians and the Orange Book, intentionally or otherwise, provided a challenge to his policy direction. Menzies Campell was never given the time to make an impact – while the media were undeniably unfair many within the party felt that he could not lead them to electoral success. Only now is that same logic being applied to Nick Clegg by a large proportion of the party.
Perhaps it is not a change of leadership that is required. Maybe Clegg needs his “Eastbourne moment”; for the party to defeat him on a key issue as it did to Steel. However, if recent electoral reversals have not shocked the leadership into action I am not entirely sure a defeat, even a significant one, will achieve a great deal in the long term.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the views of those who wish to see Clegg depart as leader. I don’t think Clegg is capable of leading the party, in the sense that he can no longer take it with him. I’m not sure where he is going, but I suspect I don’t want to go on the journey.
The issue of tuition fees was appallingly handled from start to finish. Nick Clegg should never have signed a pledge he clearly didn’t agree with (his views on FE funding being made obvious at the 2009 conference). Then , during the negotiations with the Conservatives, the issue should not have been allowed to loom so small in the minds of negotiators: David Laws, in his book, gives very little attention to the matter other than stating that “it shouldn’t have been too difficult to put something together that was better than Labour’s policy” and indicating that Lib Dem MPs not supportive of government policy on fees could abstain under the terms of the coalition agreement. Laws and Alexander failed to appreciate the inevitable storm that would embroil the party, something in itself that defies belief. Of course the pledge didn’t mention abstention, or a commitment to simply providing something better than that of the previous government.
As the findings of the Browne Review were revealed and the details incorporated into a Bill, the Liberal Democrats achieved certain concessions and helped design a Bill that was infinitely better to anything a Conservative government would have offered. However, for the Lib Dem leadership to hail this as some kind of victory was unwise and in the lead-up to the vote the best thing that can be said about the actions of the leadership is that they lacked conviction. It was a deeply damaging episode, one from which Nick Clegg’s personal credibility has never recovered.
Then of course was the poor management of the proposed NHS reforms. Expected vigourous opposition was met with docility and compliance until conference ensured a U-turn. Again, Lib Dem action ensured positive changes being made to the proposed legislation, but the damage had in part already been done.
And there’s the implied support for the Conservatives’ economic policies. Let’s be fair – back in 2010, having inherited a situation worse than imagined, Osborne’s strategy made a certain amount of sense. I was never comfortable with it and neither were many Lib Dems, but there was a recognition that action must be taken to reduce the structural deficit. Having made that call, in the interests of stability it would be unwise to unveil a plan B, simply on the basis of a lack of public appetite. However, Osborne’s plans were fundamentally flawed, as they were dependent on forecast growth in the Eurozone area. Two years later and the reality is quite different. The government can be forgiven for miscalculating, but not for obstinately clinging to policies based on a bankrupt logic. Nick Clegg should be asking to rethink the detail of the policy; certainly the plan to boost Britain’s economy is not working and the human cost of austerity is too much to pay when nothing is being delivered. But where is he? Other than Vince Cable, who has again begun delivering his mixture of economic wisdom and compassionate social democracy, senior Liberal Democrats seem married to the government’s flawed economics.
On welfare reform, Clegg has both called it wrong and failed to project himself as someone who cares – which is sad, because he clearly does. He talks passionately about social mobility while simultaneously supporting policies that reinforce social and economic immobility. On Scottish issues his sometimes unwise interventions have certainly not helped our cause, not least his assertion that we are a devolutionist as opposed to a federalist party. And when it comes to Lords reform he displays an arrogance that is unbefitting of a liberal, never mind a party leader. So insistent is he that his reforms are right, so intent is he that he must achieve reform irrespective of what it actually is, that he was given to an intemperate outburst in the Commons a few weeks ago in which he stated, in regards Lib Dem peers not supporting his proposals, that "the power of a whiff of ermine on people's opinions on the reform of the House of Lords has never failed to amaze me.” It was quite an outburst, something he qualified by suggesting Paddy Ashdown is a “lone voice” in support of progressive reform.
Being quite concerned for Lords reform and feeling for Mr Clegg I made enquiries to peers I knew had been at a meeting with Nick Clegg to discuss the matter that week. What had riled Clegg, apparently, was opposition to the detail of the planned reforms, which were felt not to go far enough. One pro-reform peer objected to the proposed lengthy 15-year terms, the stipulation that members may only serve one term and that the chamber will only be partially elected. Also, Paul Tyler is leading on this and working hard to gain support for the proposals and while he might be recommending some changes, he’s certainly onside. For Nick to be so dismissive of these people’s efforts, to go so far as to question their principles and suggest publicly that their motivations are influenced by “a whiff of ermine” is plainly insulting. For a leader to openly attack his colleagues in this way constitutes, in my mind, unfitting behaviour. For me, it was evidence of Clegg's true character. He was intentionally misrepresenting their views; while there may be some peers whose attitudes are unhelpful very many want to achieve reform of the second chamber and Ashdown is by no means “a lone voice”. Even if colleagues infuriate, there are ways of dealing with it professionally without resorting to negative briefing.
Clegg has done much of which he should be rightly proud. What concerns me most is the string of tactical errors and the inability to turn around destructive, negative public perceptions. On the key issues, he’s made the wrong call every time. While I support the principle of coalition and don’t think we should withdraw from it, I no longer have faith in Nick Clegg as leader. He cannot take us forward. He cannot regain his personal credibility.
The question, of course, is who would replace Nick Clegg should he leave? Tim Farron would be a popular choice but not necessarily the best one. Vince Cable has experience and speaks with authority, but is perhaps too tainted by coalition and in all likelihood has little appetite for the role. He could, however, see us into the next election. Ed Davey and Norman Lamb have potential but are relatively unknown outside the party; Danny Alexander and Michael Moore are too closely associated with Nick Clegg. Simon Hughes would have an outside chance but would hardly be a forward-looking appointment.
And what would the consequences be of unseating a leader? It has the potential to divide the party, just as Thatcher’s eviction created turmoil within the Conservative Party from which it is only now recovering. Opik’s strange view that Clegg should continue as Deputy Prime Minister after handing over the reins of leadership is an absurd notion that would risk intensifying divisions with destructive effect, with members supporting either the leader or the DPM, the likes of which have not seen since the days of Lloyd George and Asquith. Continuance as DPM would undermine the new leader and would risk leaving Clegg, in a similar way to Ramsay Macdonald, as a Deputy Prime Minister without support of a party. All in all, such a plan raises more questions than it answers – not least how such an arrangement would be seen by the electorate. And of course it is entirely up to David Cameron who he appoints as his deputy, which may or may not be a Liberal Democrat. It certainly isn’t a decision the party can take.
I don’t think Clegg will step down, however much pressure is applied. He is by nature resolute and is committed to seeing out his term, whatever the consequences. As far as the future of the party is concerned, this may be reckless. The party needs a future far more than it needs Nick Clegg.
There are arguments for him to remain in place. There are those who think he’s doing a reasonable job in difficult circumstances. I don’t doubt that his task is tough, but he isn’t to my mind doing a good job. Clegg made a lot of mileage in the past about being serious for government, being fit for government and acting in the national interest – I would argue that if we want to provide serious government and demonstrate our fitness to serve in the national interest we need the leader most capable of providing both strong leadership at the cabinet table and the vision to move the party forward. That person is no longer Nick Clegg.
Axing a leader is not simply a matter of how good a job they’re doing. Stephen Tall from Lib Dem Voice argues that removing Clegg would actually dent our credibility as a party. I understand his concern, but I suspect he need have no fears in that department. Tall also considers the possibility than any incoming leader would not necessarily prove more popular, but that effectively constitutes the entirety of his argument for Clegg to stay in place.
Tall is right on one count: we have to proceed in a way that increases our party’s credibility among voters, does the least damage to party unity, raises the popularity and standing of the party and ensures that any new leader is the right one. We don’t need internecine warfare and protracted power struggles, which could be the outcome of Opik’s ill-conceived plan. But similarly we have no need to defend an ineffective leader who is overseeing a decline in our party’s fortunes I fear may never be reversed unless action is taken imminently.
Nick Clegg has often spoken of the need to make tough decisions. He is right, it’s vitally important that leaders make those decisions. But they also must make the right decisions. Clegg has made too many of the wrong choices and now the party has a tough decision to make: should he stay or should he go?