Steve Richards: Now Cameron faces a new dilemma

Liberal Democrats will cling to any sign of progress like trophies. This is why the Tory leadership should be worried
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The Independent Online

Superficially the coalition is stronger at the end of the Liberal Democrats’ conference than it was at the beginning. In nearly a week of intense scrutiny not a single voice was heard inside the hall or out urging Nick Clegg to withdraw from his partnership with the Conservatives. Used to working with the Conservatives in local government and advocates of coalition as a matter of principle this is not a party about to run away from David Cameron.

Yet Cameron has cause for considerable concern after this conference. While the commitment to coalition was marked so were the attacks on the Conservative party and the determination of Liberal Democrats to claim the so-called progressive policies of the coalition as their own. The stridency of the onslaught and the overt declaration of distinctiveness was what so different from the conference a year ago.

The list is long and the message was clear in general and in relation to policy. Chris Huhne warned about the tea party tendency on the Conservative right. Vince Cable got the warmest applause at The Independent’s fringe meeting when he reminded the audience that in a poll of Tory activists he was the least popular cabinet minister. The party’s president, Tim Farron, spoke of ‘Tory drivel’ after the riots. All three and many others claimed that it was the Liberal Democrats who were holding back the reactionary instincts of their Conservative partners and were directly responsible for a fairer approach to tax and public service reform. Until Nick Clegg’s speech yesterday Labour did not get a look in.

They have no choice but to shout louder after much early premature talk at top of the coalition about how there had been such an easy ideological coming together of the two parties. In spite of the selective pragmatism of David Cameron and George Osborne the modern Conservative party is on the radical right. Most Liberal Democrats at least as represented at the conference lean leftwards in relation to the politics of fairness and in their opposition to what they refer to dismissively as Blairite reforms in public services. Farron got a big cheer for arguing that his party had purged the NHS changes of “Blairite nonsense”. Shirley Williams spoke for most at the conference when she insisted with good cause that more work is required to make sense of the reform of the NHS reforms, most specifically in order to ensure that the Health Secretary remains responsible and accountable for policy. The MP, Andrew George, was described the current state of the NHS reforms as a “catastrophic train crash”. Simon Hughes told the BBC he wants three or four more “significant” changes to the reforms.

Such robust distinctiveness while a necessary response to electoral and opinion poll catastrophe poses its own problem for the Liberal Democrats. Some voters are bound to ask if the Tories are that bad why are these strident critics propping them up in government. All of the critics have an answer to that, but quite often in politics voters pose an obvious and obviously damning question without being especially interested in a nuanced answer.

Partly because of that awkward question in his conference speech yesterday afternoon Nick Clegg sought to navigate a different route from those of his colleagues. He focused his fire on Labour in general and the two Eds in particular, blaming them and their party for the economic crisis. This takes some chutzpah as the economy was growing more strongly in the immediate aftermath of the election than it is now. The chutzpah was not applied to the other main party in British politics. Clegg mounted no onslaught on the Conservatives.

But he too, and quite rightly as a leader of a separate party, claimed credit for those policies that might broadly be seen by voters as fair and progressive. In some cases he had a strong argument. Clegg’s support for the Human Rights Act is genuinely different to the Conservative leadership’s theoretical hostility. In other areas Clegg’s assertions of distinctiveness were more tendentious. The Conservatives were also opposed to scrapping ID cards and to the introduction of a pupil premium in some form or other. Clegg’s claim yesterday to have saved the NHS is pushing it a bit as he supported the original reforms at first and will resist attempts to make further necessary changes.

The most passion in the speech came with his genuine concern for equality of opportunity or social mobility. As he acknowledged everyone supports these themes in theory and then quite often get worked up about the specific policies aimed to bring these about. Clegg’s problem is that the reach of his undoubted ambition is incomparably greater than the timescale in which verdicts will be made on specific policies at the time of the next election. In his speech he highlighted: “Making universities open their doors to everyone. Making firms work harder to get women on their boards. Breaking open internships. All controversial. All difficult. Not easy, but right”, the last sentence being the overall theme of his speech. Let us see whether Oxbridge has opened its doors in quite the way Clegg hopes by 2014 or 2015.

You can bet that if there are tangible signs of progress Clegg and his party will cling to them like trophies. Once more they will claim that they have made a Tory government much fairer.

This is why the Conservative leadership should be worried even after Clegg’s speech that was more overtly anti-Labour and argued for a mature constructive approach to government. The essence of the Cameron project at least at the beginning was to project the Conservatives as a modern, progressive one- nation party that regarded fairness as one of its core values. The projection was more skilful than the implementation of practical, substantial change across the Conservative party, a reason why Cameron failed to win an overall majority. But now the projection becomes harder as Lib Dems claim credit for any progressive tendency while warning of the reactionary government that would have wreaked havoc without them. Cameron hoped to show that the Conservatives had moved to the centre ground by working harmoniously with the Lib Dems. This is not the message most Lib Dems conveyed at their conference. It is unlikely to be the message they will articulate at the election given that in winnable seats their main opponents will be Conservatives.

In the end both the Tories and Lib Dems will be judged on whether the austerity package and the rushed comprehensive spending review last year were appropriate responses at a point when Britain’s precarious economy was starting to grow again. On this the two parties are united even when the IMF has doubts, though differences surface about the degree of flexibility within Plan A. They are not united on a lot else and the differences are beginning to be proclaimed. Clegg can relax for a bit after a calm conference. Dullness is a much better option for him than insurrection. It is Cameron who has to decide whether he is willing to play the role of the hard reactionary Tory made fairer by the Lib Dems and if he is not, how he is going to respond.

s.richards@independent.co.uk; Twitter.com/steverichards14

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