Nick Clegg: Visionary or traitor?

The Liberal Democrat leader finds himself at the centre of a power struggle for No 10 – but there are serious doubts over whether he could carry his party into an alliance with the Tories
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Indy Politics

He was the outsider who managed to gatecrash a private argument between the political big boys and propelled his party into the election reckoning.

True, he saw a historic surge in popularity dwindle into a result that shaved five seats off his party's showing in Parliament. But Nick Clegg has emerged from the disappointment of defeat as potentially the most powerful man in the country; the kingmaker who had insisted that the country would decide who rules.

A month after the Liberal Democrat leader used his last appearance at Prime Minister's Questions to complain that both main parties were blocking "the most minimal reforms to our electoral system", he has the chance to punish them for their intransigence.

For the moment, it is Labour that has the most to fear. "We all remember, back in 1997, the hope and the promise of that new Government," Mr Clegg said as he taunted the government benches last month. "Look at them now. You've failed. It's over. It's time to go."

Already Labour has had to give up control of almost 100 constituencies and, this weekend, its ministers are quietly clearing their departmental desks. Barring a reverse of mathematical, as well as political, logic, the New Labour dynasty is over. Mr Clegg demonstrably lost the election – in seats and votes cast – but he has still managed to trump Gordon Brown; it is he who stands at the threshold of Government while the Prime Minister prepares to pass the other way.

Mr Clegg has shown he has the élan, the showmanship, to shine in a televised debate with his more senior counterparts. The real questions now are over whether he has the political dexterity to screw a credible deal out of the Conservatives, and then whether his own party will allow him to carry it through.

Britain's third party has built a political programme around its unjust exclusion from power for decades; its solution to the problem, proportional representation – or "fair votes" – has become an article of faith. Mr Clegg's problem this morning is two-fold: the offer under discussion is from the Conservatives, and the proposed solution to the PR conundrum – an airy promise of an all-party inquiry into the electoral system – looks suspiciously like "the most minimal reforms" he dismissed just a month ago.

"We don't need an inquiry to prove that an eighth of the seats for a third of the votes is a fraud on the British people," said Lord Oakeshott, a Lib Dem Treasury spokesman. "This is exactly what Ted Heath offered Jeremy Thorpe [in 1974]."

Mr Clegg, a former public schoolboy and a Conservative in his youth who is squarely on the right of his party, may have more in common with Mr Cameron than he does with Mr Brown. But the response of his party's members last night betrayed a significant resistance to any closer links with the Tories.

Past leaders struggled to achieve "equidistance" between the two main parties, but a significant "progressive bloc" of Lib Dem activists are not convinced that their heart lies in a coalition of the centre-right.

"I have not fought against the Tories for 30 years to prop them up in government now," one constituency agent, who helped to return a Lib Dem MP on Thursday, said last night. "I'm no fan of Labour either, but they are surely preferable to the Tories – and they are offering more as well."

Don Foster, a veteran Lib Dem front-bencher, yesterday complained that he disagreed with "many of the key things the Conservatives stand for". He added: "If I have to say which way do I lean, of course I'm leaning slightly more towards the Labour Party."

The reservations, repeated last night by several Lib Dem MPs, are believed to be shared by some of Mr Clegg's predecessors, notably Lords Steel and Ashdown – both of whom worked closely with past Labour regimes. However, as his aides point out, Mr Clegg's rightward leanings were endorsed by the party when he was elected leader. His riposte to all the criticism would surely be to succeed where his predecessors failed, either by extracting lasting concessions to address concerns over the electoral system or by managing to govern effectively in partnership under the present rules.

Mr Clegg will not get PR from the Tories, but he may get a seat in Cabinet: an idea floated by Sir John Major as the two parties were making their first fumbling approaches to each other on Friday. His party may not be reassured by his demands, repeated before the meeting with MPs yesterday, for fair tax reform, a "new approach" to education and the economy, and "fundamental political reform of our political system".

He could extract some concessions by negotiating on a bill-by-bill basis with a minority Conservative government, but he would get more seats from Labour and a referendum on PR. However, after his suggestion that Mr Brown must resign before the Lib Dems can negotiate with Labour and reports that the two men argued when he repeated the claim during a telephone conversation on Friday evening – a renewed Lib-Lab pact seems a distant prospect.

If Mr Clegg really wants to test the Tories' appetite for change, he will face a battle with his party at all levels, at all stages of the "triple-lock" system designed to ensure such fundamental moves must be endorsed by the party hierarchy, MPs and members.

He has shown leadership since he was elected to head the party in 2007, but there is no evidence that he can corral reluctant colleagues to follow him into such uncharted and controversial territory. Either way, he will write himself into political history, as a visionary, a coward or even a traitor.

"Nick won a lot of arguments to get himself elected," an ally of the leader said last night. "He has carried the party with him on just about every issue. He will make the right decision, the party will trust him and they will support him in everything he does as a result."