"It has been one sack of sh*t after another,” snapped one senior Liberal Democrat as he reflected on a disastrous week. As they tried to get on with governing, Lib Dem ministers were hounded by the media about the allegations of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard, the party’s former chief executive, and Mike Hancock, an MP now suspended by the party.
Norman Lamb, the Health Minister, launched his long-planned mental health strategy but was asked about the mental state of Lord Rennard, who revealed he had considered self-harm. Alistair Carmichael, the Scottish Secretary, wanted to talk about the risks of independence but was bombarded with questions about what he knew about the two scandals given he was the Lib Dem’s former chief whip. Nick Clegg escaped to Davos, where he wanted to talk about the EU, but the media snapped at his heels about his party management.
The nice party, one totally committed to equality, somehow managed to look nasty – and must surely have alienated some women voters. The Rennard row so divided the Lib Dem family that some statements from his friends – “touching up women through clothing is OK” – might seem more likely to come from Ukip, whose exiled MEP Godfrey Bloom memorably said that women should “clean behind the fridge”.
Mr Clegg felt trapped: he was damned if he did accept the findings of a QC’s inquiry into the Rennard affair, and damned if he didn’t. It recommended that Lord Rennard apologise to the women who accused him of harassment. Mr Clegg thought that was the right course and so demanded an apology. If he had not done so, the outcry would have been even worse. His problem was that he could not force Lord Rennard to make an apology, so he looked impotent.
“I don’t think it is my job as leader of the party to try to micromanage this,” Mr Clegg said. He was wrong: a leader has no alternative but to interfere and get his hands dirty. Strong leadership sometimes means being autocratic. That’s showbiz.
Internal party management is no fun. It is certainly less fun than running the country. Mr Clegg does not exactly look forward to meetings of the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee, which can drone on for hours. But he heads the only of the three main parties with a democratic structure.
With glorious hindsight, he should have reformed the Lib Dem rulebook to make it fit for a professional party of government rather than amateurish opposition. The problem with such reforms is that you have to persuade turkeys to vote for Christmas to get the changes approved. That takes a lot of time and energy and is easily put off.
Tony Blair made the same mistake. His reforms in opposition, notably ditching Clause IV, sent a powerful signal to voters. While he was riding high in government, he should have completed Labour’s unfinished business – its relationship with the trade unions and party funding. But he let sleeping dogs lie and Ed Miliband is now having to clear up the dogs’ mess.
For a party with no experience of government, the Lib Dems have shown remarkable maturity since 2010. They have proved that coalition works. But the Rennard scandal is a reminder of their unfinished business. The archaic Lib Dem rulebook will have to be rewritten, its Byzantine structure streamlined. The leader will have to be given more power to lead. Party activists will not like it but will have to swallow it.
Where power lies in the Lib Dems may become very important next year. In the event of another hung parliament, a very possible outcome, Mr Clegg would need his party’s endorsement to enter a coalition. It would probably allow him to join forces with Labour. But it might not let him form a second coalition with the Conservatives.
It’s not just that most Lib Dems instinctively feel closer to Labour, or that another Lib-Con Government would make the third party look like a branch of the Tories. There is a growing recognition, even among Lib Dems happy to be in bed with the Tories now, that the current Coalition is running out of steam. The low hanging fruit on which the parties agree has been picked.
On tricky issues, they have agreed to disagree and put off decisions for another day – welfare cuts; a high value property tax; Trident; the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights to name just some. This would be the in-tray for an incoming Lib-Con Government next year – just after the two parties had set out very different policies on these issues at the election. It might be very difficult to reach a new Coalition Agreement – and it might prove impossible to persuade Lib Dem members to approve one.
Conversely, Labour and the Lib Dems could agree on these issues and more capital spending on projects like housing; green taxes; childcare; ending winter fuel allowances for rich pensioners; immigration; an elected House of Lords and votes at 16.
The main lesson Mr Clegg has learnt since 2010 is: when there’s political will, there’s a way. So he believes it would be possible to do another deal with the Tories if they were the largest party. However, there are growing signs that his own party would not let him.
Lies, damned lies and selectively released statistics
Beware statistics that are selectively leaked.
We awoke yesterday to reports that the Government had “published” figures showing that take-home pay had risen by more than prices in the 2012-13 financial year for all but the top 10 per cent of earners.
In fact, the figures had been spun to Conservative-supporting newspapers – resulting in favourable, unquestioning headlines. They were withheld from other papers, including The Independent, which would have asked neutral experts for their view – even though all of us had been seeking the stats since David Cameron alluded to them on Wednesday.
No surprise, then, that experts found flaws in the figures, which take no account of changes to child benefit and tax credits and exclude the 4.4 million self-employed.
The stats also don’t tell us all that much about living standards, to which disposable household income is a better guide. What they do tell us is that a ruthless Tory machine is gearing up to fight on Labour’s turf.
Of course, all parties trumpet the figures that suit them. But this was a bit cheeky of the Tories, as the rise in take-home pay was due to the increase in the personal tax allowance – the Lib Dem policy which Mr Cameron said in 2010 the country couldn’t possibly afford.