Andrew Grice: Clegg has to shout to be heard, but voters may be ready to listen

Inside Politics
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When Nick Clegg agreed to do one of his regular meet-the-people meetings at the Glastonbury Festival, he got more than he bargained for. He was introduced by Merrick, from a radical group called Corporate Watch, who ended his finely-honed poem with a tirade of abuse about the Liberal Democrats, and how they were ****ing s***.

Mr Clegg was horrified but largely won over his initially hostile audience. The incident reinforced two of his core beliefs: to succeed (and get noticed) he has to take risks, and that there is a gap in the market for his party because many voters have written off Labour but can't bring themselves to embrace the Conservatives.

He would say that, wouldn't he? But something is going on after the MPs' expenses scandal and it may be good news for Mr Clegg. The latest monthly "poll of polls" for The Independent shows that, while both Labour and the Tories have been damaged by the affair, the Liberal Democrats have not. Since April, the Tories' average poll rating has dropped from 43 to 37 per cent, while Labour's has fallen from 28 to 24 per cent. But the Liberal Democrats' has remained solid at 19 per cent.

"The Liberal Democrats have not been hurt by recent events," said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiled the figures. Their current ratings are better than at any time in the last two years. The other, smaller parties are still polling strongly at 20 per cent. If that continues and Liberal Democrat support remains firm, Professor Curtice said, "the next election may begin to look less like a straight choice between Conservative and Labour than either David Cameron or Gordon Brown would like".

True, the current polls would still give the Tories a majority of 34 seats. But every sensible Tory, including Mr Cameron, knows the party should be doing better with Labour in such a sorry state. It feels very different from 1996, when Tony Blair was walking on water and Labour was cruising to victory. Although a Tory win remains the most likely scenario, it is no longer barmy to think about a hung parliament. In which case Mr Clegg will certainly get noticed, as he will hold the balance of power.

The Liberal Democrat leader has tackled his visibility problem successfully in recent weeks. He had a rare Commons coup by defeating the Government over the residence rights of Gurkhas, forcing Mr Cameron to jump on his bandwagon. He was the first party leader to call for the former Commons Speaker Michael Martin to resign. This week he broke the all-party consensus by questioning Britain's strategy in Afghanistan, saying publicly what some in the two main parties think privately.

His party has been more honest than the big two about where the inevitable spending cuts should fall. It is ahead of the curve in calling for the Trident nuclear missile system to be scrapped, an argument whose time may well come.

Soon Mr Clegg will expand on his "hit list" of cuts in a speech that will also be an early mini-manifesto. He will accuse Mr Cameron of "economic illiteracy" by demanding spending cuts during a recession, a sign that the two opposition parties would make unlikely bedfellows in a hung parliament.

Not that Mr Clegg is hopping into bed with Labour yet. Far from it. He needs to profit from Labour's troubles. He is convinced his party can seize seats in Labour's northern heartlands. Which is just as well, since they will probably lose some to the Tories in the South-west. In last month's local elections, the Liberal Democrats did badly there in areas where they held power – a sign that the MPs' expenses scandal provoked votes against the establishment party, whoever that happened to be.

Mr Clegg's talk of overtaking Labour seems far-fetched. To achieve that, he would almost certainly require a crushing Labour defeat and a Labour civil war to be won by its left wing. Not impossible, but lots of hoops.

In the meantime, the Liberal Democrats have got to keep in the game, as they have managed to in the past two months. What is Mr Clegg's big idea? At his party's conference in September, it will be education, which he will link to the public spending debate by arguing that the nation needs big-ticket savings to avoid saddling future generations with crippling debt.

For many voters, the general election will still come down to a familiar choice between two horses – especially if Labour closes the gap with the Tories. But if that doesn't happen, the "wasted vote" argument that has blighted the Liberal Democrats' prospects for decades might just become less potent. There might then be quite a market for a third way.