.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Monday, March 14, 2011

What is the point of Nick Clegg?

Whilst I am trawling the papers it is worth mentioning this intriguing article by Mary Ann Sieghart in today's Independent. She argues that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have been misjudged in their contribution to the coalition government and have the opportunity to really make their presence felt.

She starts off by discussing tuition fees: Of course, he didn't get all he wanted on tuition fees, but had he gone into coalition with Labour, he would have faced exactly the same problem. It was Labour that first brought in the fees, and Labour that commissioned Lord Browne to suggest ways of increasing them. As Clegg admitted in his Q&A session with activists on Saturday, the Lib Dems were in a pretty weak negotiating position.

She then discusses the Liberal Democrats' problem in distinguishing themselves from the Conservatives: The trouble is that the short-term interests of the Lib Dems collided with those of the country and the Coalition. It is in the national interest that the Coalition should work, that at a time of economic and financial fragility, government is robust. It is also in the Lib Dems' longer-term interest that coalitions shouldn't be seen to be weak. Referring to the hurtling pace of reforms under this government, Clegg joked yesterday: "Perhaps the new complaint about coalition governments is that coalitions are too strong." With the AV referendum coming up, it was critical for the Lib Dems to counter the "no" campaign's most powerful argument: that AV would lead to more coalitions. The coalition brand needed decontaminating just as badly as the Conservatives' did.

She highlights that the Liberal Democrats are already starting to distinguish their contribution to government: Clegg is also embarking on what his team call "positive differentiation" – boasting about what the third party has already achieved in government: the pupil premium, the AV referendum, the Freedom Bill, and so on. This sort of talk was forbidden at the start of the Coalition, but is now allowed in the run-up to May's local elections. As one of Clegg's advisers told me yesterday, "The ship has to be stable before you can start rocking it a bit."

Negative differentiation is still verboten, though we might see some of it later in the Parliament. This is when the Lib Dems start saying: "By being in government, we've managed to stop stuff from happening." It might be preventing the Conservatives from being too Eurosceptic, thwarting a more right-wing agenda on law and order, or stopping ministers being rolled over by City interests.

Her conclusion though is that it is the negative differentiation that can really make the difference in how people view Nick Clegg:

The biggest immediate test is over the NHS reforms. The Lib Dems voted against the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's plans at the weekend. Not a single Lib Dem minister to whom I have spoken recently has expressed any enthusiasm for them. Mind you, very few Conservatives have either. David Cameron, while keen on the policy, knows that the politics of it are dreadful.

So this presents a rather convenient opportunity for both coalition parties. Clegg can tell Cameron that the reform must be delayed or watered down to satisfy the Lib Dems. Most Tory MPs would be genuinely relieved if this were done. The junior coalition partner would look to the country as if it were saving the NHS from unpopular Tory measures. And Downing Street would have an excuse to row back.

That's the point of Nick Clegg. As long as he chooses his battles carefully, he genuinely can make Tory policies better.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?