John Rentoul: Clegg's luck may be running out

Ed Miliband's poor showing hasn't stopped the Lib Dem leader being the bookies' favourite as the first to lose his job
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The Independent Online

Nick Clegg has been a lucky politician. He was lucky to win the leadership of his party against Chris Huhne, who polled more votes, but had them held up in the Christmas post in 2007 (a public service reminder: post your cards now). He was lucky to come to the leadership just before the one election in 36 years that produced a hung parliament. He was lucky that his strategic error in tilting towards the Conservatives before the election was rendered irrelevant by the precise arithmetic of the election, which made a deal with Labour nearly impossible. And he was lucky to find that he was, by chance, a good fit for a Conservative strategy of second-stage detoxification, pursued by a pragmatic Tory leader, who saw that a Liberal-Conservative coalition was exactly the Geist of the Zeit.

Deputy Prime Minister? All David Steel got in 1976-78 was a piece of paper and direct elections to the European Parliament. No wonder he's bitter.

What is more, Clegg's luck will hold in one sense, because, almost regardless of what happens now, he is likely to stay in that high office until 2015 with his party influencing decisions at the heart of power. Even if it all comes to a grisly reckoning in four-and-a-half years' time, he will have had a good run for someone whose greatest job satisfaction, if the die had wobbled over the other way, might have been to have written to a minister to persuade her to reverse an immigration appeal decision for one of his constituents.

In another sense, his luck is beginning to run out, in that, as one Liberal Democrat MP put it privately last week, if they had tried to script the tuition fees issue in an attempt to embarrass the party, they would have been "stretched" to come up with something quite as implausible as the farce that is coming to a climax on Thursday.

We are familiar, by now, with the misjudgement of Clegg's signing the National Union of Sanctimoniousness pledge to vote against raising tuition fees, having fought to change party policy on precisely that point.

But the embarrassment continued. In the coalition negotiations, as David Laws recounts in his book, tuition fees were not regarded as a big problem. Agreement was swiftly reached – although it is worth pausing to explain its nature, as it lies behind this week's confusion. The agreement provides for Lib Dem MPs to abstain in any Commons vote "if the response of the Government to Lord Browne's report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept". This looks like a concession to the Lib Dems, but it was actually a way of allowing the Tories a free hand. As everyone understands better now, abstention lets the Tories have their way, while letting the Lib Dems say that they don't like it. At the time, it was considered a price worth paying for the coalition. In return for three abstentions – the others were on nuclear power and tax relief for married couples – the Lib Dems got a referendum on changing the voting system.

What Clegg and Danny Alexander failed to foresee was that they, or, rather, Vince Cable, would be responsible for "the Government's response to Lord Browne's report". In which case, the question of abstention does not arise. It was resurrected only because the party is so divided on the issue, and it looked like a way of smoothing over the depth of the split.

Clegg has used the device of abstention before. One of his first tests as leader was the Lisbon Treaty, which replaced the European Constitution, on which all three parties had promised a referendum. He instructed his MPs to abstain on a Conservative amendment to hold a referendum on the treaty, but 15 – and the party in the Lords – voted in favour. "It's part of leadership," he said, in tribute to his missed vocation as a stand-up comedian. "It's a difficult issue. It doesn't in any way affect the unity and sense of optimism in the party."

He reprises this richly ironic theme in his interview with this newspaper today, defining unity as meaning "that if you disagree at the end of the day, you disagree with everyone agreeing that everyone has had a chance to have a look at it."

Thus the stage is set for the final frames of the slow-motion car crash that has been running since before the election, in which the dummy finally smashes through the windscreen. The outcome will be what it was always going to be, even if Labour had formed the government six months ago, namely higher tuition fees paid for by a more progressive graduate contribution. The votes in the Commons are simply not there for any alternative. But the reputations of Clegg, Cable and Alexander will have suffered extensive damage.

While the policy with which the Government has ended up is close to being the least bad of a range of difficult options, it casts doubt on Clegg and co's basic political competence that they have been quite so poor at arguing for and explaining it. It was never a good plan to think that recalcitrant MPs could have been bought off by pretending the whole party might abstain, and then admitting at the last minute that the leadership intended to vote for its own policy after all.

Given that the policy is going to go through anyway, and given that some Lib Dem MPs are going to vote against it anyway, surely it would have been better if Clegg had sought from the start to persuade as many Lib Dems as possible to vote for it?

With the Lib Dems having lost half their support since the election according to the opinion polls, Clegg's luck seems to have run out. He seems safe enough until the election, although it is notable that, even after Ed Miliband's disastrous showing in the Commons last week, Clegg remains the bookies' favourite to be the first of the three party leaders to lose his job.

But if Clegg survives to 2015, will he get lucky again?;