Steve Richards: Clegg has no room for manoeuvre

Clegg's agile positioning in the aftermath of the election is undermined almost fatally by his apparently enthusiastic support for the risky spending cuts that define the Coalition

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The moment I heard rumours that Charles Kennedy might defect to Labour, I knew for sure that the switch would not happen and could not happen. This is not because Kennedy is thrilled with his party's partnership with the Conservatives. He is not. The speculation in itself guaranteed there would be no drama. Defections only take place suddenly and when no one is expecting them. They are never preceded by informed predictions.

The tiny number involved in the preparations for such highly charged changes of side are sworn to secrecy, knowing a word out of place in public could deter the potential defector from making his or her move. Look back at all the defections and they were sensational precisely because no one was expecting them. Here is a rare example of the past being a reliable guide to the present. Defections are always sudden and without warning.

More often, the present can provide a guide to the recent past, placing dramas in a context that make more sense than they did at the time they erupted. Two current elections cast vivid light on the recent past and in doing so help to make more sense of Nick Clegg's current awkward position, one in which speculation about Kennedy's intentions is a symptom of fragility, even though he is staying put.

The first shaft of fresh light comes from Australia, where leaders attempt to form a government after no party secured a majority in last week's election. The Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was widely hailed as bold and wise a few weeks ago, when she called an early election having ousted her predecessor. Her move looks less sensible and courageous now. The second source of light comes from closer to home, as Labour's leadership candidates struggle to capture attention. Most of the time the campaign is portrayed disdainfully as an insubstantial bout between a few former special advisers from Oxbridge.

The two disconnected electoral events make the immediate past look different. Gordon Brown's failure to call an early election in 2007 was seen as weak, cowardly and a colossal misjudgement. The fate of Gillard in Australia shows that Brown took the right decision. If he had called an election at the end of the conference season in 2007, I have no doubt he would have lost his overall majority, as Gillard has done. The polls in the days leading up to Brown's decision showed that the Tories were ahead in marginal seats and his overall lead was less than Gillard's when she called an early election. The tide had turned against him and, as Gillard discovered, a narrative soon develops about the disloyalty of leaders who seize the crown.

Context determined the fate of Gillard and Brown, as it does most politicians. Both had a limited, unattractive choice. They could call an early poll and lose, as one decided to do, or hold on to power as an unelected leader and suffer three years of hell, the option of the other. There was no third way for Brown or Labour. The reporting of Labour's current leadership contest shows why. Imagine if Brown had been removed in a bloody coup and then a contest followed that was viewed with the same yawning disdain as the current campaign. The voters would have slaughtered such introspective self-indulgence.

The myths that Brown would have won an early election and that Labour made an error in not dumping him subsequently show that we columnists work on a false assumption. We write on the basis that leaders and their parties function in acres of political space. We call on them to act in ways they cannot: Cameron Should Do X! Clegg Should Do Y! In reality, quite often they are in no position to do X or Y. Public opinion, the state of their party, the virulence of the media, the economic situation or some other constraint determine what they can do.

Clegg has made much of the limited space available to him. His party won fewer seats than at the election in 2005. Yet he is Deputy Prime Minister and has secured a referendum on electoral reform. When he speaks at his party's conference next month he will list several substantial measures he regards as vindication for the Liberal Democrats' involvement in the Coalition.

Yet Clegg's agile positioning in the aftermath of the election is undermined almost fatally by his apparently enthusiastic support for the wildly risky spending cuts that define the Coalition. The gap between mandate and implementation of revolutionary agenda is vast and dangerous for all those involved, especially so for the leader of a party that has a strongly developed commitment to public services and the investment required to support them. Cameron and George Osborne did not win an overall majority. Clegg certainly did not. Combining the two defeated parties does not mean that there is a consensus for wiping out the deficit in a single term, an act of unnecessary vandalism being pursued by Cameron/Osborne for ideological and expedient reasons, passionate believers in a much smaller state hoping to offer election-winning tax cuts at the next election.

Margaret Thatcher's political genius was to recognise how much space she enjoyed as a leader when Labour fell apart in the early 1980s. She embarked on her much more limited economic experiment with a substantial overall majority and facing an opposition that was split. She knew when the wider political situation allowed her to act. Cameron and Osborne are not such astute navigators. If they were they would have won an overall majority at the election.

At the moment, they misread media support for sweeping cuts as a green light for them to stride into wide- open spaces that do not exist. Clegg has signed up to an alliance with a Conservative leadership that is, in terms of its hostility towards the state, moving too fast and without the level of support and divided opposition that enabled Thatcher to make her moves. She would have been much more cautious than they are being. Look closely at the political space in which supposedly mighty leaders seek to prevail. Gillard is doomed even if she struggles on in power. Brown was doomed, too, by the summer of 2007. Clegg, Cameron and Osborne have a little more space to determine their destinies but nowhere near as much as they seem to think.

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