Andrew Grice: Clegg invades Tory turf to get under Cameron's skin

Inside Westminster

Share
Related Topics

"We are the One Nation party," Nick Clegg will tell the Liberal Democrats in his speech to their spring conference tomorrow. It is meant primarily as an assertion of the Lib Dems' identity – a party that represents all sections of society and all parts of Britain without being in hock to vested interests, while the Conservatives rely heavily business donors and Labour is dependent on the unions.

But Mr Clegg knows his spot of plagiarism will also get under David Cameron's skin. "One Nation" is a Conservative theme dating back to 1845 and Disraeli. Mr Cameron would doubtless prefer his Coalition partner to stick to Gladstone. He wants to be seen as a "One Nation" leader. Mr Clegg implies that, whatever Mr Cameron's instincts, the Tories have not yet abandoned what Disraeli would have called the "two nation" philosophy of Thatcherism.

Mr Clegg's invasion of Tory turf shows how the Coalition game has changed. Its unity phase, which the Tories hoped would last until 2015, is over. The ugly word on the Lib Dems' lips is "differentiation" and they are enjoying their new freedom to differ from their Coalition partners. The Tories hate it. The Lib Dems are even having a bit of fun. When Nadine Dorries, the outspoken Tory MP, attacked the concessions given to the Lib Dems on the Government's health reforms, Richard Reeves, a senior Clegg strategist, sent her a bunch of flowers as a thank you.

Last year, in the unity phase, the Lib Dem leadership told party rebels: "We cannot be government and opposition at same time." Today they try to have it both ways. The Lib Dems negotiate in public over this month's Budget, to George Osborne's dismay. Yet the Lib Dems cannot let disunity push the Coalition off the rails. So they happily work on a joint policy statement for this summer highlighting the issues where they broadly agree with the Tories.

Last year, Mr Clegg would have shared the Tories' anger at this week's leaking of the letter by Vince Cable, the independent-minded Business Secretary, saying the Coalition lacked a "compelling vision" beyond its spending cuts. The leak was not part of a differentiation master plan; the Lib Dems are not that Machiavellian. But it dovetailed with Mr Clegg's strategy, as it showed that the Lib Dems were fighting their corner, were thinking hard and were not the same as the Tories, so the Deputy Prime Minister was relaxed. "It helps us," one ally said.

Their new buzzword is "JEET", which stands for the issues they want to talk about – jobs, education, environment and tax.

But many Lib Dem activists at this weekend's conference in Gateshead fear the party will be dragged down again unless it kills the health reforms. Grim comparisons are made with the impact of university tuition fees on the Lib Dems, the poll tax on Margaret Thatcher and the Iraq war on Tony Blair. If Labour succeeds in making the NHS a big issue at the next election, the Lib Dems will have nowhere to hide, the party's "kill the Bill" brigade warn. There will be no escaping the massacre implied by the current opinion polls.

Mr Clegg's "One Nation" claim is a declaration that the Lib Dems have pitched their tent in the centre ground and hope to colonise as much of it as possible. They do not dream that millions of voters will suddenly flock to them; Mr Clegg seeks a gradual, grudging respect that his party is trying to do the right thing for the country and admits it sometimes gets it wrong.

For this strategy to work, and to prevent a Lib Dem meltdown in 2015, he may need Labour to veer left under Ed Miliband and for Mr Cameron to appease his MPs and Tory-supporting newspapers by turning right to differentiate himself from those irritating Lib Dems. Mr Miliband and Mr Cameron would both dismiss such a course as fantasy, yet their actions sometimes give the Lib Dems hope that it could become reality. Mr Clegg's party cannot be written off yet; it is still in the game.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'