Editorial: The divide that Clegg must bridge is bigger than ever

 

Share

The timing of the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference in Brighton is benevolent and calamitous in equal measure

After last week’s Eastleigh by-election victory, the party has much cause for celebration. But the debacle over Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce – now awaiting sentencing – and the allegations still whirling around the misconduct of Lord Rennard, the party’s former chief executive, cannot but cast a pall over proceedings. As the consequences of both scandals extend to apparently explosive questions of who knew what, and when, senior figures will struggle to escape such questions over the coming days.

The ambiguous atmosphere is reflected in the conflicting public statements from those high up the hierarchy. In a surprisingly naive interview, the party’s president, Tim Farron, described Liberal Democrats as having the qualities both of “nutters” and of “cockroaches after a nuclear war”. Never mind that Mr Farron was trying to characterise his activists’ admirable resilience; he did so in a way that is a gift to their opponents. In contrast, Sir Menzies Campbell, a more experienced former party leader, is upbeat, talking of optimism without complacency. And at last night’s pre-conference rally, Nick Clegg was jubilant over Eastleigh and called on his party not to be disheartened by those predicting electoral disaster ahead.

That was just the beginning, though. Mr Clegg’s task this weekend, and in the months ahead, will be defined by his party’s wildly conflicting mood music. Above all, he needs to make unmistakably clear what matters and what does not, regardless of the headlines.

Questions about who knew what in relation to Mr Huhne and Lord Rennard will soon subside – not least because senior figures can argue, with some justification, that if they responded to rumours in politics, then they would do little else. After all, until the start of his trial, Mr Huhne denied he had asked his then-wife to take the rap for his traffic offence; and Lord Rennard still denies allegations of sexual harassment. Both issues raise questions about the culture of a party not used to scrutiny. But the waves are small in the context of the increasingly fractious political climate within both the party and the Coalition.

Of far greater significance than either Mr Huhne or Lord Rennard are Vince Cable’s veiled calls, in a magazine article earlier this week, for increases in capital investment. Even more so against a backdrop of growing Liberal Democrat resistance to the Chancellor’s calls for further cuts in other areas, particularly welfare. The contrast with attitudes within the party during the 2010 spending negotiations is striking. Then, Liberal Democrats were largely united in support for the austerity programme and the two ruling parties worked together. Now, however, the differences are more marked.

A growing divide is inevitable, given the fragility of the economy, the political hit that the Liberal Democrats have suffered in coalition, and the approach of the 2015 general election. But the party is also increasingly internally split. Although Mr Cable has claimed that his analysis weighing up the pros and cons of extra, debt-funded infrastructure spending is no departure from the Coalition’s economic orthodoxy, the Business Secretary’s allies in the party have tabled an emergency motion urging “radical action to get growth going”. Mr Clegg, however, rejects the proposal out of hand.

Faced with such restiveness, Mr Clegg must reassure his party this weekend that more will be done to boost growth, without making it impossible to reach agreement with David Cameron and George Osborne. The task is a difficult one, marking the start of the hardest phase yet on his tempestuous political journey. It is, though, the only route he can take.

 

 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager - Events, Digital, Offline

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager (Events, Digit...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A woman walks past a pro same-sex marriage 'Yes' banner hanging in the window the Green Party's office in Dublin on 21 May 2015.  

Ireland's same-sex marriage referendum: A whole nation will now decide if I should be an equal citizen

Ross Golden Bannon
The day that Britain resigned as a global power  

The day that Britain resigned as a global power

Fareed Zakaria
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable