Any political defeat brings the knives out. And a defeat that was, on the face of it, as comprehensive as the one suffered by the Liberal Democrats in the latest local and European elections was bound to prompt recriminations and the infighting at which the Liberal Democrats have long excelled. With a prominent peer, Matthew Oakeshott, commissioning his own polling from the sidelines and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, called upon for periodic interventions from China, the Lib Dems’ post-election melee has taken on the theatricality of a radio farce.
As leader, Nick Clegg reportedly considered resignation, then decided the manlier course was to stay. He was right. But he has a far better defence to mount than he has so far allowed himself to make or his haggard demeanour suggests.
First, the results for the Lib Dems were not as catastrophic as their Europe wipe-out makes it appear. Unlike those commissioned by Lord Oakeshott, many pollsters (Ipsos Mori and YouGov) reckon their support will hold up reasonably well in next year’s general election. Of course, it suits the Conservatives, and especially Labour, to keep the focus on the Lib Dems. But they held on to councils they might well have lost.
Second, it is hard to think of anyone else who would be doing any better as leader. Clegg took the Lib Dems from being a party of protest to a party in power. As junior partners in coalitions have invariably found, that slice of power comes with a price, but is it not more laudable to be able to do something than just talk about it?
Third, many of the recriminations now coming from inside the party and its supporters reflect old grudges. Clegg’s decision to go into government at all stripped them of their protest banners. He is blamed for joining the Conservatives rather than Labour, but the arithmetic only added up one way. And there is the red herring about university tuition fees. The Lib Dems joined the Coalition as the very junior partner. This was one of the compromises that had to be made – and, by the way, the new fees have not deterred low-income students who are funded and whose numbers have increased.
Fourth, Lib Dem ministers have, by and large, acquitted themselves well in government. They have policies to their credit, including the rise in the income tax threshold that has taken large numbers of low-earners out of tax, the pupil premium and – yes – free school meals. And they have tempered others – on Europe, immigration and benefits. Preventing or watering down policies is not noticed as much as implementing them, but it is no less vital. As a bonus, Clegg’s international experience and cosmopolitan background have helped David Cameron through many a foreign spat.
Fifth, Clegg has – or had – done well as leader both to keep his naturally wayward party together and keep himself in the public eye. Call Nick Clegg, his weekly radio phone-in on LBC, recently won an award, and inspired Boris (who is hardly publicity-shy) to request his own. On the air, Clegg comes over as calm, genial, reasonably direct (for a politician) and well-informed. Nor, contrary to popular wisdom, did he mess up his Europe debates with Nigel Farage. His problem was that the scales are always weighted in favour of zealots without power or responsibility. Anyway, the debates are not what cost his councillors and MEPs their seats.
Nick Clegg’s mistake, if there has been one, is not to have boasted enough of his party’s success in government. Being in a coalition, though, calls for solidarity until the next election looms. Perhaps he left it too late – though the clashes with Michael Gove over money for free schools suggest otherwise. This Government has almost a year to run; the Lib Dems still have a (small) share of real power. Their leader has less to regret than he seems to fear.