Mary Dejevsky: So what's Clegg done wrong?

A coalition presupposes compromise. And the reason this coalition has the right-of-centre complexion it does is that this is how the country voted
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The Independent Online

After 10 years as a Briton in Brussels and five as the lone non-Labour MP for a Sheffield constituency, Nick Clegg must have developed a carapace of steel. At least I hope he has, because the invective that has been hurled in his direction would have penetrated any lesser armour.

The tone was set by the acting Labour leader, Harriet Harman. In her response to the emergency Budget, she ridiculed Liberal-Democrat ministers as "fig leaves" for signing up to a programme that she simplistically condemned as one of unadulterated "cuts". This particularly choice passage is typical of the sort of verbal cobblestones being slung in Mr Clegg's direction. "The Lib-Dem leaders," she said, "have sacrificed everything they ever stood for to ride in ministerial cars and to ride on the coat-tails of the Tory Government. Twenty-two Liberal-Democrat ministerial jobs have been bought at the cost of tens of thousands of other people's jobs."

Sections of the media have been even nastier. George Osborne's Budget has been subject to deliberate or, in some cases perhaps, lazy misreading to make it chime with the doom-laden forecasts that preceded it. The Liberal Democrats have been branded turncoats, Quislings, Petainists and collaborators. (France's recent decision to release names of war-time collaborators on the internet will show what collaboration really means, but that is by the by.) Someone even denigrated them, with mock-pity, as the Tories' "human shields".

The fact that a coalition government is a novelty for most British voters may offer a partial explanation for the ferocity of current attacks. As may the bitterness of the left, which believed – and still believes – that if there was going to be a coalition, it should be their coalition. Hell hath no fury like establishment left-wingers scorned.

But there really should be no excuses. What we are watching is not the normal cut and thrust of politics; it is a type of after-the-fact combat that reflects the refusal of the losers to accept their loss and a wilful denial that there might be another way of doing politics.

There is another way, though, and we are looking at it. To accuse the Liberal Democrats of treachery is to misunderstand how coalitions work and what they are for. A coalition presupposes compromise. And the reason this coalition has the complexion it does – to the right of centre – is that this is how the country voted.

Nor was anyone misled. During the campaign, Nick Clegg said he would talk first to whichever party gained most seats; this was always likely to be the Conservatives, and any rational voter knew that. In the event, however, Mr Clegg's decision was made for him. The numbers did not add up any other way. Some Lib Dems might feel that, to save their honour, their party should have stayed aloof. Some Conservatives might have preferred David Cameron to form a minority government. But anyone who denounces the coalition as undemocratic must recognise that the alternatives were even more so.

In the unlikely event that the Lib Dems' detractors can accept that coalition means compromise, they have then to address a new question. Were the Lib Dems inept in their coalition negotiations? Could they have extracted from the Conservatives much more than they did? The answer is surely No. To be sure, there are points that need clarification: the timetable for the proposed referendum on a new voting system, for a start. But a pretty comprehensive rollback of illiberal late-Labour legislation is not nothing.

As for the Budget that has been the subject of such venom, critics have to ask what this Budget would have looked like without the contribution of the Liberal Democrats. Would the threshold for the basic rate of income tax have been raised? By so much? Would child benefit and pensioners' one-off benefits have been retained? Would the capital spending programme have been largely spared? Would there have been such an emphasis on the regions? Would the 50 per cent top rate of income tax have survived?

Nor is a tally of 22 ministers, with at least one in each major government department, to be sneezed at. (It is not the Tories' fault that one resigned and another's effectiveness may have been compromised by a newly messy private life.) Would, let's say, Ken Clarke have become Justice Secretary in a Conservative-only government? And, even if he had been given a Cabinet post, would he have been in a position to suggest not only that the prison population was too large, but that something should be done about it – something that, in the short term at least, might cost money?

Then take foreign policy. It is hard to envisage that William Hague would have given the foreign policy speech he gave yesterday had he represented a Conservative-only government. His promise to send more high-flying diplomats to Brussels can be read two ways, but the cordial reception that he and the Prime Minister have received in European capitals would have been improbable if Nick Clegg, who is fluent in "European", as well as all his other languages, had not been around to smooth the way. And if those first meetings in Europe had gone badly, might Mr Cameron have found himself looking less like a national leader in his own right at last weekend's Canada summits and more like President Obama's very junior partner?

It is early days. But in their first efforts at coalition government, Nick Clegg and his small troupe of Liberal Democrats have nothing to be ashamed of – nor, indeed, does Mr Cameron. Both are being punctilious about looking and sounding collegiate. And the proof that all is not going so badly is the – so far – narrowly predictable provenance of the attacks. A leaderless Labour is talking "fig-leaves"; there are lobbyists whose job is to exaggerate their causes; there are militant trade unionists shouting "fiscal fascism", and there are hyperbolic chatterers on the left. Helped along, perhaps, by the distractions of the World Cup and Wimbledon, the warm weather and the hope of holidays, the voters are keeping calm. To their credit, they still agree with Nick.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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