Steve Richards: Clegg could be an engaging and effective leader. But how much does that matter?

Leaders of the Lib Dems come and go. The dilemma remains the same
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The Independent Online

The Liberal Democrats' leader, Nick Clegg, has attracted more publicity for his parliamentary contortions over Europe than for his speech to the party's spring conference at the weekend. Yet for several reasons his speech was more significant.

The Liberal Democrats were doomed to get into a dreadful mess over Europe last week irrespective of who was leading them. It is true that Mr Clegg did not wave a wand over his unruly parliamentary colleagues and persuade them all to dance to the same tune, but then it is not at all clear that a conjuring trick would have worked.

Since the summer, Mr Clegg's parliamentary party has been split over whether or not to support a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. They were divided under Sir Menzies Campbell. They would have been lacking unity on the issue if Charles Kennedy had been at the helm. Some of the more sensible MPs took the government line that there was no need for a referendum on the treaty. Quite a few of them felt there was such a need. No doubt their convictions were strengthened because they represented seats where frenzied Euro-scepticism still holds sway.

Mr Clegg faced a big revolt if he had opposed a referendum on the treaty, and a substantial one if he had supported such a move. He therefore opted to abstain, while calling for a referendum on whether Britain should stay in or out of the EU. It was a pathetic stance, but no worse politically than the other options available to him that would have led to bigger divisions within his ranks. For all their protestations of purity, the Liberal Democrats play political games too, and this was a failed attempt to contrive party unity when no such unity existed. But the contortions of last week will soon be forgotten if Mr Clegg manages to resurface from the storm and come across as an engaging leader who makes a distinctive pitch. He made a start with his speech on Sunday to the party's spring conference. In doing so he provided several pointers to the wider political battle and challenged the cliché that the Liberal Democrats are in trouble because other parties are occupying their ground. Mr Clegg's speech showed that this was not the case. There are some echoes to the left and right of him, but not that many. Importantly in the light of the parliamentary farce of the previous week, Mr Clegg made a refreshingly strong case for Europe. As far as I could tell, he went as far as saying that Britain's key foreign policy relationship should be with Europe and not the United States. There were none of the deadly, illusory tributes to Britain's special relationship.

On the domestic front, he seemed to mean it when he spoke of his commitment to the environment, public service reform, social justice and above all the need for constitutional change. He also suggested there might be room for overall tax cuts – clever political positioning even if such an objective stretches credibility with the party's spending commitments. Even Mr Clegg has proposed an increase in spending on schools in poorer areas without explaining fully how he would pay for it. Some of his colleagues make such commitments on most days of the week. Above all though, Mr Clegg's desire to "do politics in a different way" seems to be his guiding path. In some ways this is an easy hit, blaming the system for your own party's relative impotence. But there is no doubt that Mr Clegg speaks for many voters when he refers to parliament's "clapped-out" procedures. In such a context he has made the right strategic decision to be less tolerant of outdated parliamentary ways. In order to be heard, it is sometimes necessary to be noisy. I see nothing wrong with the carefully rehearsed decision of Mr Clegg and his MPs to storm out of the Commons chamber a few days ago. The miscalculation was to lead a walk-out in defence of their silly proposal to hold a referendum over whether Britain should stay in or out of the EU. In principle, such protests are a good idea, catching the voters' attention in the anti-politics age.

As part of his new way of "doing politics" Mr Clegg made clear in his speech that he was not going to be an adjunct to one of the other parties after the next election. He would only contemplate coalition as part of a radical constitutional shake-up that included electoral reform for the Commons. It seems to me therefore that in his first big speech as leader, Mr Clegg has effectively ruled out the option of joining a coalition government, at least in the immediate aftermath of an election. Imagine what the political situation would be like if no party wins an overall majority. Gordon Brown would be in far too weak a position to thrust electoral reform on his party. He would have lost seats and led his party to the brink of defeat. As for Mr Clegg, he would also find it impossible to proclaim a constitutional revolution while propping up a government that had lost support at an election. Meanwhile, if David Cameron had deprived the Government of its overall majority, he would want another throw of the dice a soon as possible in the hope that the current electoral system gave him a decent win so he would not have to bother with the Lib Dems.

If the Liberal Democrats cannot agree on a referendum for the Lisbon Treaty, there is unlikely to be unity over which party it could work with in a coalition. In such circumstances Mr Clegg would face what Paddy Ashdown used to describe, with a hint of frustrated anguish, as a "triple lock". Mr Clegg would need to secure the support of his front bench, parliamentary party and the wider membership. Can you imagine Mr Brown or Mr Cameron waiting around to form a government while Mr Clegg consulted his party membership? On what basis would Mr Clegg make such a consultation if no party leader were inclined to offer him electoral reform? It is not going to happen. There will be no formal coalition after the next election, whatever the result.

Yet Mr Clegg's performance at the weekend suggests he will be an effective campaigner. He more or less pulled off the fashionable device of wandering around the stage as if engaged in a conversation with his audience. At the very least, it is safe to predict that Mr Clegg will not be an embarrassment as a campaigner at the next election as for various reasons Sir Ming Campbell might have been.

Leaders of the Liberal Democrats come and go. The dilemma remains the same. On the basis of his performance this weekend Mr Clegg has the potential to be a distinctive, radical and engaging leader. The route to power for his party is as obscure as ever.