Will Nick Clegg play the kingmaker?

Leader Nick Clegg goes before his party faithful in Bournemouth this week confident he could be holding the balance of power after the next general election. Brian Brady analyses his chances and finds trouble in the ranks
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Indy Politics

A historic opportunity?

He doesn't quite have the gravitas of a Gladstone, a Lloyd George or even a Charlie Kennedy, but Nick Clegg will become one of the most celebrated third-party leaders in British history if he leads the Liberal Democrats to a role in Government at the next general election.

In the six decades up to the end of the First World War, Liberals were in charge at Westminster on 10 occasions; Mr Clegg's party faithful do not need reminding that since then they have been exiled from Government for almost 90 years. Yet as they gather for their pre-election conference in Bournemouth this week, the prospect of power is finally tangible.

With Labour's dramatic decline from the Blairite supremacy appearing irreversible, Mr Clegg can expect to profit by picking up a few seats from Gordon Brown. The Tories look certain to be the largest party in the next Parliament, but they are not yet confident of achieving an overall majority.

Lib Dem support is more than four points down on the 2005 general election result and could be vulnerable if Labour begins to recover from its historic lows, but the unspectacular Mr Clegg has built a loyal base. His party has had the most stable level of voter support in the past year: out of some 75 significant opinion polls recorded since January, 88 per cent have put the party in striking distance of 18 per cent. The third party may not be preparing for Government on the scale envisaged by David Steel in 1981, but Mr Clegg may justifiably prepare to decide who governs with his party's consent.

Policies: what will happen at conference?

Mr Clegg has learned the hard way the dangers of unveiling interesting policy ideas too early. A year ago, when the Lib Dems proposed tax cuts to revitalise the recession-stricken economy, they were largely ignored: the plan was later embraced by Mr Brown and Barack Obama. The latest wheeze, spearheaded by the party's unlikely poster-boy, Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, is a variation on the theme: raising the income-tax threshold to £10,000, cutting the taxes for those on low and middle incomes by £700 a year. But Mr Clegg is keen to advertise the Lib Dems' hard centre, leading the charge for spending cuts to fill the black hole left by the implosion of the financial services industry: his eve-of-conference message yesterday warned of the need for "bold, even savage, cuts" to balance the books. Mr Clegg has already warned that the recession demands a rethink of his party's big-ticket commitments such as scrapping university tuition fees, providing free personal care for the elderly, and bringing in a higher basic state pension. He faces his first big confrontation with disappointed grass-roots activists and some MPs, particularly against moves to abandon the scrapping of tuition fees.

Key players

Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne were the youngish guns who fought over the Lib Dems' future in the latter days of 2007. It was briefly thrilling for a party frustrated under the unsatisfactory Menzies Campbell interregnum: two wealthy, educated politicians promising a battle of ideas to mimic the youthful revolution already experienced by the two major parties. The contest did spark some interest and the rivalry between the two continues to enliven the debate within the party. But it is the man who chose not to fight the contest and then regretted his decision who has done more than anyone to elevate the Lib Dems into a serious political outfit. Mr Cable, who briefly held the leadership on a caretaker basis, is a respected Treasury spokesman who enjoys remarkable levels of public trust. He has piloted the party's critical taxation blueprint and he will be a key figure in any negotiations over how the Lib Dems use their influence after the election.

Like most Lib Dem leaders, Mr Clegg has struggled to break into the two-party fight that dominates British politics. However, he has achieved some victories – notably over his support for the campaign for rights for Gurkha veterans. The latest Ipsos MORI polling shows two in five people are satisfied with Mr Clegg's performance – ahead of Mr Brown and just behind David Cameron – and he has the lowest disapproval ratings of the three.

Internal strife

Chris Huhne makes a reasonable fist of concealing his distress at losing the leadership election, despite polling more votes. "Rules are rules, and Nick won fair and square," he said earlier this year. But friends of the Home Affairs spokesman say he is frustrated at playing a junior role. The friction between the men was exposed late last year when Mr Clegg was overheard criticising his colleague to a close ally during an internal flight, while discussing a reshuffle of his top team. Mr Huhne was ruled out of speaking on Environment because someone "more emotionally intelligent" was required. Within weeks, Mr Huhne was stripped of responsibility for speaking on issues relating to the Ministry of Justice.

Members of the Clegg camp maintain that Mr Huhne "is not a team player", claiming that, if he feels sidelined, it is because he has not nurtured his own support base within the party. It may not be Blair-Brown but, mishandled, it could develop into a rift that threatens the stability of a resurgent party.

Scenarios: chances of success/failure

The Lib Dem strategy depends on how the main parties perform at the general election. In 1997, with all opposition parties preparing to capitalise on the Tory collapse, Paddy Ashdown went into the campaign with credible hopes of emerging with a share of power. Although the party more than doubled its seats, Mr Ashdown had to abandon his hopes as Tony Blair's landslide dwarfed the Lib Dem gains.

If the Lib Dems repeat their gains, but Mr Cameron wins well enough to form a majority Government, Mr Clegg's position within the party, and his status at large, will be consolidated. But he will remain exiled from power.

In the event of a hung parliament, Mr Clegg has already rejected Labour expectations that he would fall in line with them – warning yesterday that "my reasons for refusing to even contemplate such a move are many". The party has responded to the threat of a Conservative squeeze in the South and West by targeting Labour seats further north.

Nevertheless, Mr Clegg is also happy to criticise the "con-man" Mr Cameron and in the IoS today Mr Cable sends a signal that his party might prop up a Labour government, at least in the interests of economic stability. In order to keep its options open, the leadership has constituted a small team, under Mr Cable, to prepare for the post-election auction by using "scenario planning" techniques employed when he was chief economist at Shell.

Fancy that

After graduating from Cambridge, Mr Clegg wrote a book. No earnest tome on Liberal history, it was "a classic, late-adolescent outpouring of slightly maudlin, melancholy, pretentious thoughts," according to the author's own review, "about an old man sitting in a room alone, once a powerful figure in society, but now abandoned by everyone." At least he had been powerful.

In another youthful rite of passage, Mr Clegg was given community service digging gardens for setting fire to a professor's rare collection of cacti in a "drunken prank" during a student exchange in Munich. "I'm not proud of it," the grown-up Mr Clegg said. "But we all misbehave as teenagers."

Another senior Lib Dem, Lembit Opik, made his own foray into the arts world, with equally dismal results, in 2002. The colourful MP made a bid for pop stardom playing harmonica with Scottish musician Hank MacGregor on the song, "Weekend Rock And Roll Bank". "I hope the public will go out and buy the single and make me and Hank Christmas No 1," he said. They didn't.

Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe's big confession to gay magazine Attitude was his support for the Lib Dems. But hopes of him copying J K Rowling's £1m donation to Labour may have to be put on hold. "I rather like Nick Clegg," the straight actor told the magazine in July. "At the next election I will almost certainly vote Lib Dem.