Matthew Norman: Nick Clegg and the art of self-destruction

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As the most instructive political axiom I've made up today has always insisted: "He who would advance himself for the post of Prime Minister is well advised to retain at least one of his testicles."

This is not to suggest that no eunuch has held the post. In the 4th century BC, a certain Bagoas acted as Prime Minister to and later assassin of (let no one accuse old Baggy of lacking balls) the Persian emperor Artixerxes III. But since then, nothing... nix and nada. Not one gonad-free male has led a government anywhere in the world for two-and-a-half millennia.

You'd have thought that Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and putative Prime Minister, would be at least intuitively aware of this disappointing strike rate. And yet, this week he castrated himself in full view of the House of Commons. Mr Clegg once declared that it would be over the vexing issue of Europe that the Lib Dems would prove their cojones, a favourite word of George W Bush's. Since he is a talented linguist (Mr Clegg, that is; not so much Mr Bush) who speaks about 28 European tongues and has a Spanish wife, he deserves the benefit of the doubt about his choice of role model. What is in less doubt is that with that brave prediction Mr Clegg made himself a hostage to fortune with a recklessness seldom seen since Dubya's father Pappy Bush intoned: "Read my lips. No new taxes."

Fortune, in the deceptively gentle guise of William Hague, hurriedly chained the hostage to the interrogation chair and, in the absence of the two traditional repositories for electrodes, smacked him about the head with that bullish quote. The reason the Lib Dems sounded so shrill, Mr Hague drolly posited during Mr Clegg's attempt to whip all his MPs into abstaining over the referendum on the abridged EU constitution (aka the Lisbon treaty), was that "they've become separated from their cojones".

The House of Commons produces very few decent jokes, which is why the late Tony Banks's typically witless remark about Mr Hague resembling a foetus caused several Honorable Members to scurry off in search of matron and her ribcage repair kit. This one, though, was as devastating as Vince Cable's one-liner about Gordon Brown morphing from Stalin into Mr Bean.

Ah, Vince Cable, Vince Cable. What must Lib Dem MPs be making of the contrast between his punchy, basso profundo leadership style and the pubescent squealings of Mr Clegg? Much as we all enjoy wacky bids for inclusion in the Guinness World Records book, they can hardly ditch yet another leader before he has even completed that mythical first 100 days. Even so, you needn't hijack that new machine which reads human thoughts from brain patterns to see what is on their minds.

Less penetrable are the thought processes that enticed Mr Clegg to self-destruct like this, but then some questions are so troubling that it is folly to contemplate them for long. What came before the Big Bang? Was it sadism or incompetence that persuaded the all-loving, omniscient Christian God to give humanity free will, knowing it would be abused? What possessed Alf Ramsey to substitute Bobby Charlton with England leading West Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final in Mexico? Dwell on these things for more than a few minutes and you can go almost literally mad.

The same goes for Mr Clegg's decision to order his MPs to abstain on this vote. Apart from the fatuous observation that abstinence tends to be the eunuch's curse, it is completely beyond me. Even if he couldn't predict the loss of three of his front-benchers, even if he didn't guess that other MPs would rebel, even if he reckoned neutrality was the smart defensive position for MPs defending marginals against the resurgent Tories, how could he not foresee that the only image projected by limply resting on the green benches when everyone else was standing erect to head off towards the lobbies was one of absolute impotence?

Allowing a free vote would have both avoided the debacle and underscored the liberal values he spoke of in his leadership acceptance speech in December. Had he whipped his people to vote against the Government, he would have honoured his own party's 2005 manifesto commitment to a referendum and emerged strong enough to weather a rebellion with ease. Instead, he demanded a referendum on EU membership itself, something wanted only by certifiably frothing Europhobes, and the phone-in stablemate of restoring capital punishment (fun to debate, but never going to happen). An averagely smart nine-year-old would have seen it for the babyish red herring it was.

Even without self-mutilation on this scale, electoral life isn't easy for the Liberal Democrats. They only get publicity when they are in trouble, which on some subconscious level may explain why they find so much of it. The market distinction that is their lifeblood is horribly elusive with the once incendiary issue of Iraq largely defused, and David Cameron encroaching on their green and civil liberties turf. The only route to holding enough seats to capitalise fully on the widely anticipated hung parliament is via a vibrant, potent leader who communicates real anger at the failures of government and disdain the vacuous opportunism of the Tories.

Mr Clegg begins to look a bit spongey and sappy. Clearly a bright, well-meaning young chap, he seems cast by looks and nature as a popular Devon GP. If my piles erupted in Tavistock or Newton Abbot, I could think of no one I would rather hear snapping on the latex glove. He would be gentle and thorough, defusing any embarrassment with his relaxed manner, and then he would advise you to live with the discomfort as best you can.

But whereas doing nothing is generally the best prescription for haemorrhoids, in opposition it is invariably a recipe for irrelevance, ridicule and decline. Mr Clegg was elected, by the skinniest whisker, to oppose – not to play Clinton-Blair triangulation games by neurosing about the impact of his MPs' voting records on tiny pockets of the electorate in marginal seats.

He was chosen to define himself and his party as boldly and eloquently as possible, and to enthuse those of us who can no more stomach Mr Brown's lethal micro-managerial neurosis than trust in Mr Cameron's reinvention since authoring such a crudely right-wing manifesto less than three years ago.

The precedent set this week is perilous in the extreme. If Mr Clegg cannot rouse himself to vote on issues as central as this country's relationship with Brussels, why wouldn't disaffected Labour and Tory voters follow his example by abstaining in the general election? Meanwhile, traumatised Lib Dem MPs must be drifting off at 3am, reflecting ruefully on Vince Cable's scintillating spell as caretaker, and waking a couple of hours later, sweaty and shivery and thoroughly dejected, from taunting dreams of being led again by a man with the cojones the job demands.