Editorial: A brave effort to square the Coalition circle

 

Share

This autumn conference was Nick Clegg's third since leading the Liberal Democrats into Coalition and each has followed a familiar script. The opening is preceded by talk of the hard time he is going to have, courtesy of a discontented and disillusioned party rank and file, and the challenge he could face to his authority. And at each, Mr Clegg has weathered – with a certain grace and good humour – what turned out, in the event, to be an almost non-existent storm. This year was no exception.

The tasks before the Liberal Democrat leader at Brighton were as clear as they have always been, and as unenviable. He had to argue that, even as the junior partner in the Coalition, the party had not squandered its time in government. He had to show that there are advantages as well as the more obvious electoral disadvantages to holding even a small share of power. But most of all, he had to demonstrate that, after almost two and a half years supping with a Conservative-led Cabinet, the party has not sold its soul.

This may well have been the true purpose behind the apology – for breaking his election promise on university tuition fees – that Mr Clegg issued as a perverse taster for the conference. It was a decision whose timing (just as memory of the broken promise seemed to be starting to fade) and content (he was sorry for breaking the promise, but not for making a promise he had no prospect of keeping) were as dubious as each other. But a bizarre turn of events – the genius of a satirist who set the apology to music – allowed Mr Clegg to snatch a very Lib Dem sort of victory from defeat. And his response to the gag – self-deprecating amusement and instructions that any proceeds go to a local charity – was a model of how to deal with such things.

While in the short term Mr Clegg salvaged more than seemed remotely possible, however, the underlying travesty will not go away. It will dog Mr Clegg for as long as he leads the Liberal Democrats. But he is also right in that this promise and its fate exemplify the political liabilities of moving from being a party that is confined to protest to being a party of – shared – power.

To have any significant political future, Liberal Democrats must be able to believe that they have made a Conservative-led Government behave differently. And while some might argue that they have helped Mr Cameron more than they have constrained him –by giving him political cover for policies unpopular with his Eurosceptic right wing – Mr Clegg can justifiably claim that the Liberal Democrats will not come away from their spell in government empty-handed. Whether he can convince all his party faithful of this, let alone wavering voters, however, is another matter.

There will be those – the party's president, Tim Farron, apparently among them – who feel that he could have pushed harder on tuition fees. But on income tax thresholds, on schools (the pupil premium) and on the green agenda, the Liberal Democrats have the beginnings of a record to defend. In his speech yesterday, Mr Clegg indicated lines that he would not be prepared to cross – tax fairness and green energy among them.

But the closer the election comes, the more difficult the Liberal Democrats' task becomes. The more they will have to differentiate themselves in policy terms from the Conservatives and the more they will need tangible achievements to show. Yesterday, Mr Clegg steered skilfully enough between the Scylla of social protest and the Charybdis of Conservative power. But he should be under no illusion; equally treacherous waters lie ahead.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
 

Isis in Iraq: Even if Iraqi troops take back Saddam’s city of Tikrit they will face bombs and booby traps

Patrick Cockburn
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003