Andrew Grice: The lesson of Oldham? There is life in the Lib Dem parrot yet

Inside Westminster

Share
Related Topics

To avoid a messy media scrum, a meeting of Liberal Democrat ministers at 8am yesterday was hurriedly switched from Carlton Gardens off The Mall to the safe and secure Grimond Room, named after the former Liberal Party leader, inside the Palace of Westminster.

News of the meeting had leaked to the Labour Uncut website on the eve of Thursday's Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. Fearing a bad result, the Liberal Democrats did not want television cameras to capture Nick Clegg and his ministers trooping in and out of "crisis talks" (even though the session had been planned before the contest was called).

In the event, they need not have worried. The Liberal Democrats got a respectable second place behind Labour in Oldham and their ministers could breathe a collective sigh of relief when they discussed it. If Liberal Democrat activists had gone on strike over the party's plummeting opinion poll ratings and refused to go to "Old and Sad", Mr Clegg could have had a third place and a mega-crisis on his hands.

Instead, members turned up in droves and he was able to tell yesterday's meeting: "When we go out and talk to people about what we have already achieved in government they are prepared to listen. So let's be confident about what we are delivering and let's make sure we are out there to make our case."

No party leader likes to admit to a change of strategy, knowing that "U-turn" fits neatly into a headline. Mr Clegg is adamant that he isn't changing tack. Yet his remarks acknowledge the need to "make our case" more forcefully – both to the public and his party.

Before last May's election, the Liberal Democrats were better prepared for coalition talks than either the Conservatives or Labour, but by definition they were ill-prepared for government. They have had no option but to learn on the job. One lesson is a dangerous divide between the 18 mostly happy ministers who are enjoying an unexpected taste of power and the 39 rather grumpy backbench bunnies. Efforts to prevent the party's MPs becoming "two tribes" will be stepped up.

Mr Clegg has not changed his view that his party must take full ownership of Coalition decisions. "We can't be a niche within it," one close ally said. Otherwise, Mr Clegg judges, his party will have no chance of getting any credit if the Coalition's economic "rescue mission" works.

A delicate balancing act is required: the Deputy Prime Minister must point up how his party has made a difference and achieved some of its key goals. According to the agenda, yesterday's ministerial meeting discussed "making the Coalition work as a partnership of equals". Easier said than done. Clegg aides believe they could easily boost their poll ratings by screaming their gains from the rooftops. But if Mr Clegg trumpets them too loudly, the Tories will hear a message that these things would not have happened without the Liberal Democrats. That would weaken Mr Clegg's hand in future negotiations with David Cameron. Tricky.

Like Mr Clegg, Ed Miliband has been under growing pressure from his restless MPs and has also won a breathing space from the by-election. The Labour leader will need to use it to achieve some momentum in order to silence his critics.

Mr Cameron won't lose too much sleep over the collapse in the Tory share of the vote in Oldham. He will be privately relieved that the Liberal Democrats did not come third. That would have created a problem for Dave because it would have been a disaster for Nick.

Yet in the new world of coalition politics, Mr Cameron must also perform a constant balancing act to keep the Liberal Democrats and his own party on-side. Right-wing Tories who want the Coalition to fail are on the march over the party's poor showing after a half-hearted Tory campaign designed to bolster Liberal Democrat prospects which, as I revealed last month, was discussed by the Cabinet.

Although the strategy worked, Mr Clegg is under no illusions. He is prepared for an even more difficult year in 2011 than 2010. The "heavy lifting" on university tuition fees may be over, but tricky decisions on bankers' bonuses and control orders will also strain relations between the Coalition partners.

Dave will not be able to throw Nick a similar lifeline in the May elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English councils. He will be on the opposite side in the May referendum on the voting system. If that is lost, Mr Cameron may not be able to guarantee Mr Clegg's Plan B – early action on an elected House of Lords, to which there is strong Tory opposition.

So there will be many more occasions when Mr Clegg has to tell his party to hold its nerve and play it long. "It is a marathon, not a sprint," he told his ministers yesterday. Oldham should give the Liberal Democrats an energy burst.

The Liberal Democrats, once dismissed as a "dead parrot" by Margaret Thatcher as she ridiculed their yellow bird logo, are still alive. Mr Clegg's internal critics have nowhere else to go – unless they want an early general election in which the party would face a meltdown. Oldham vindicates his long-term strategy. As Baroness Thatcher also said, there is no alternative.

React Now

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

Primary teaching roles in Ipswich

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education re...

Science teachers needed in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A homeless person sleeps in the streets  

This is why I am sleeping rough outside the party conferences

Max J Freeman
Strikes were carried out by manned air force and navy aircraft (File photo)  

Syria air strikes: President Assad now has the enemy he always wanted – Islamist terrorism

Kim Sengupta
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits