Matthew Norman: Poor Clegg. Damned if he did...

From the moment that exit poll proved anything but a rogue, the Lib Dem leader was lost because every option was unremittingly horrendous
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The Independent Online

Whatever has or hasn't been resolved since this was written yesterday afternoon, when a Tory-Liberal Democrat seemed imminent, it will take a little while to work out what happened in Britain this week. This is English understatement, of course, of an order unknown since Lord Cardigan put the telescope to his eye to survey how his Light Brigade had fared, and murmured "Mm, Simkins, that might have gone better" to his valet.

If journalism is generally the first draft of history, in these circumstances it barely cuts it as a hurriedly scrawled shorthand note to defeat the might of Bletchley Park. This has been the "Manuel Election". We knew and know naah-fing, and won't begin to understand the ramifications for a long time.

Even the man apparently poised to become Prime Minister was in on the act yesterday morn. "Just bumped into David Cameron," ran a reporter's tweet, "asked him how talks were going. 'I don't know, no one tells me anything any more'. Assume he was joking." Well, half-joking anyway, assuming that this was a reference to Nick Clegg's secret weekend trysts with Gordon Brown. But assumptions make dangerous bedfellows when even so once assured a swordsman as Mr Clegg has found the prospect of jumping into bed with any fellow so mortifying.

Predictions are far more dangerous still, and the sensible hack would wish to avoid them like syphilis. But a potentially fatal dose strikes me as Mr Clegg's reward, regardless of what he has done, is about to do, or may not do at all. If any political figure has ever been dealt a more savagely and ironically unplayable hand than him, I'd love to hear about it. So would Mr Clegg, you imagine, because he could use a good laugh right now.

The other day Vince Cable made a wry reference to his party being snookered, but that barely hinted at the impossibility of the position. For the Lib Dems, it was as if the cue ball came to rest in the jaws of the pocket, and was then hemmed in by three reds that ricocheted around the table before forming a hemispherical guard of honour around it. There was simply no shot to play that wouldn't have been called a foul.

The ironic bit is that the situation to which Mr Clegg would have awoken on Friday had he had a wink of sleep was so desperately close to the one he'd have prayed for on Thursday evening. But for the minor setback that he suffered that unexpected kick in the ballots, it was perfect. The balance of power had been the third party's theoretical holy grail for decades. Who guessed that when it fell into his hands, it would be coated with weapons grade uranium?

Whether he and the Lib Dems can survive the short-term radiation sickness, let alone the malignancies that must develop, will depend on luck as much as judgement, but they'll need outlandish quantities of both to have an earthly. The peculiar wickedness is that since Friday Mr Clegg hasn't put a foot wrong. Malcolm Rifkind raced from camera to camera yesterday morning like a whippet with a dollop of Colman's up its bum, screeching like an outraged Victorian maiden – someone get that dry old spinster a shot of laudanum – about the Tories being two-timed by Clegg. But what the hell was he supposed to do?

It's understandable if an ingenu like Mr Rifkind, with no more experience of power politics than you'd expect of a Thatcher cabinet minister, doesn't understand this, but the primary function of political parties is to gain power. In that pursuit, offered the enticing if phantasmal prospect of forming a reformist dream team with Labour, the only betrayal Mr Clegg could have committed would have been against himself by not meeting Mr Brown. If the true intent was to panic Mr Cameron into offering a referendum on AV, wretchedly inadequate as that system is and unwinnable as that plebiscite may prove, it worked. I'm not sure what the technical name for tactical hardball of the kind is, but a vague hunch whispers "politics".

And yet, and yet... seeping already into the national consciousness, or being piped into it by portions of the press, is the notion that Mr Clegg, far from being that Lenor-fresh breeze blowing through stagnant Westminster, stinks as bad as the rest of them. The hateful dilemma produced by such cruel electoral mathematics, meanwhile, seemed to reveal that his party isn't the gleaming Prius it appeared, but something from Arthur Daley's lot welded together from two write-offs and given a cheap spray of yellow paint.

This is a potential killer. If some two-thirds of his MPs strike the punters as closet Labourites, however unfairly, and if the rest are equally unjustly characterised as ersatz one-nation Tories, he can bid farewell to the protest vote from disaffected supporters of either. If the false portrait of him as a fresh-faced Fawkes skulking and plotting in neo-Gothic corridors takes hold, God have mercy on him when next we trudge to the polling stations.

It's so unfair that you could weep for him, but from the moment that exit poll proved anything but a rogue he was lost because every option was unremittingly horrendous. In partnership with Labour, Mr Clegg would look opportunistic and anti-democratic, though with hindsight perhaps that was never a live runner. Had it been so, would Gordon Brown really have involved Ed Balls in the talks? That's like the Home Office sending in Bernard Manning as lead negotiator with the rioters of Toxteth.

Refusing to deal with either party, although theoretically the best defensive move, would have instantly buried the Lib Dems in the coffin of effete dilettantism. It makes me nauseous to say so, but propping up the Tories one way or t'other was always the least monstrous option, however obviously this makes him hostage to Mr Cameron's ruthless self-interest and alienates a vast chunk of left-leaning Lib Dem voters.

Whatever happened, Nick Clegg told his MPs the other evening, it wouldn't be pretty. That was an even greater understatement than the one at the start of this article. He has played an absolute post-election blinder, and still it will be monumentally hideous. I hope to God I'm wrong about this, and wish them all the luck in the world in any new alliance. But just a few weeks after its imminent birth was heralded, I fear we may have witnessed the strange death of Liberal Democrat Britain, strangled in the womb by the two-party squeeze it came so heartrendingly close to escaping at last.