Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Expect the real Nick Clegg to stand up and surprise us all
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When Gordon Brown telephoned to congratulate Nick Clegg on the morning after he squeaked home in the Liberal Democrat leadership race, he said: "It's important we work together for the benefit of the nation." The next day, David Cameron phoned from China, leaving a similar message on Mr Clegg's mobile.

Politicians should beware embraces by their opponents and any rapid rise in the parties' footsie index. When Tony Blair wooed Paddy Ashdown before the 1997 election, they discussed merging their two parties, while some hard-bitten Blair advisers quietly sniggered that they would "love the Lib Dems to death" in what they dubbed "Operation Hoover".

Mr Clegg was not fooled by all the attention this week. He viewed it as a compliment that the two other leaders were worried enough to chase his natural supporters. Mr Clegg's phone may well be ringing hot after the next election. While senior Labour and Tory figures profess their confidence in victory, many believe privately that a hung parliament is the most likely outcome.

The Liberal Democrats won 22 per cent of the vote in 2005 and those people could easily decide the outcome next time. Mr Clegg believes his task of widening his party's appeal can be helped by the love-bombing by Labour and the Tories.

Why? Mr Brown's overtures to natural liberals might have worked this summer when he hoovered up all before him, but may carry less appeal after his nightmare autumn. It is going to be hard for the Brown government to provide the "change" that all three parties promise.

The Prime Minister dangled the carrot of constitutional change during his friendly chat with Mr Clegg, who replied that he wanted all-encompassing reform rather than the "pick and mix" approach under which changes to the voting system and House of Lords will probably be delayed until after the election.

Well before Mr Clegg celebrated his narrow victory over an impressive Chris Huhne, Mr Cameron had put on his best liberal clothes. He invited the Lib Dems and Greens to join him in a new "progressive alliance".

This was a cheeky wheeze designed to hijack the "progressive consensus" Mr Brown has repeatedly vowed to build. In a pamphlet, Who's progressive now?, two rising Tory frontbench stars, Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, sought to demolish Mr Brown's credentials. It was a daring attempt at political cross-dressing, but the Tories have not yet matched style with substance. Labour is vulnerable to the charge that, for all its talk about creating a more progressive society, social mobility appears to be frozen an indictment after 10 years in power.

Mr Clegg spots a gap in the market. Like the Tories, he suspects Labour's approach of pumping money into public services and "top-down" targets has failed, especially as spending will now be squeezed. But he doesn't buy the Tories' idea of consensus on "decentralising power" as they will not devolve real spending and tax-raising powers.

The leader of our third party is confident he has a third way: the mixed economy in some continental countries under which the state provides the money, but genuinely devolves power to local communities in a "bottom- up" approach. It's fuzzy and needs to be explained crisply so that people know how it would improve their lives. The Lib Dems need more credible policies on public services. The key man to watch will be David Laws, who was given a crucial job covering all public services in Mr Clegg's reshuffle. His agenda may include more diversity in providers and putting consumer interests above those of the producers, which will be controversial for some in his party.

The Liberal Democrats are at a fork in the road. There is only one way to go down the bold route. The new leader didn't have a good campaign, but I suspect the real Nick Clegg will now stand up. He might just surprise us.

Read Andrew Grice online at independent.co.uk/todayinpolitics

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