Nick Clegg's apology plays well for Lib Dems, too

 

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Nick Clegg's much-mocked apology may turn out to be a tactical coup. In a busy news week he has managed to snatch attention on to the Liberal Democrats in the build-up to his party conference. And he has ensured that the moment will be prolonged by releasing his tape in time for the evening news bulletins on Wednesday five days before Monday when the full Lib Dems "apology" party political broadcast is scheduled to air.

The Deputy Prime Minister's team freely admit it is a welcome fluke that the apology has been transformed into an iTunes hit, with the earnings going to charity. From now on when the broken student fee pledge is thrown in their faces, all Lib Dems will be able to concede wryly, "well that was a mistake and we've apologised" wherever they stood on the promise and its abandonment. Voters generally like apologies, otherwise there wouldn't be such a clamour for them.

But this is about more than tactics. With a personal popularity rating of minus 61 per cent, Clegg needed to do something and probably did not have much to lose. Nor indeed does his party. Latest research by the leading psephologists Thrasher and Rawlings shows that the Lib Dem's grassroots are eroding fast. Traditionally the party's tally in council elections runs well ahead of its national opinion poll rating. Not any more: both are in a slump.

There will be a common theme to the mutterings on the margins of all three party conferences: "Under this leader are we going to do the job come the general election in 2015?"

Insiders express doubts about Cameron and Miliband. But the problems are greatest for Clegg: Vince Cable is on manoeuvres, Lord Oakeshott says be gone, and everyone thinks there's an easy exit for him to Brussels in 2014 when Commissioner Cathy Ashton's term expires. But Clegg's apology signals to his party that he will fight all the way through the next election (assassination plots permitting).

The Lib Dems hired Clegg because he promised to take them from being a party of protest into power. He fulfilled his end of the bargain in record time by joining the Coalition government. But by no means all Liberal Democrats have made "the journey" in their hearts. The student fees issue, and the apology drenched in the pragmatism necessary to the exercise of power allows Clegg to deliver an object lesson that the Lib Dems now want to govern rather than grumble. Of course the party could revert to high-minded impotence, but Clegg's not interested in joining them. Nor, he calculates, are the vote-hungry activists . His aides say Clegg acted now because he is confident that his MPs are united behind him. Following this week's Chequers summit there is also agreement on both sides of the government that the "differentiation strategy" has damaged both parties. From now on it's back to plan A and the economy, the policy which brought the Coalition into existence. Sidelining the tuition fee issue makes sense here too.

The Lib Dems are at ground zero now and Clegg hopes the only way is up. Maybe, maybe not. But for now Clegg has re-seized the reins of his party. Will David Miliband and David Cameron do the same?

The writer is political editor of Sky News

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