Leading article: Finished? Clegg's future revisited

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The conventional wisdom in Westminster for the past two years has been that Nick Clegg is finished. He lost nearly half of his party's supporters the moment he went into coalition with the Conservatives, so the theory goes, and has spent much of the time since trying to offend those who remain. He switched sides on the question of how quickly and how deeply to cut the deficit; he sold out on tuition fees; he made a mess of the chance to reform the voting system; he allowed David Cameron to isolate Britain in Europe; and in last month's Budget he put his name not just to a tax cut for people on top incomes but to a series of apparent blunders on taxes on pasties, pensioners and charity.

The fashionable consensus is that the Liberal Democrats will lose a lot of seats at the next election, and that Mr Clegg will hand over to a new leader to try to rebuild the party – if he has not already defected to Brussels as the UK's commissioner, a vacancy coming up in 2014.

In his interview with this newspaper today, he rejects this last option, declaring that he will fight the 2015 election as Deputy Prime Minister. And, although there is a hint of the valedictory in his tone, speaking of how history will judge him and what he hopes that his legacy will be, he makes a passionate case: that if it were not for the Liberal Democrats, this Government would be much worse.

After two years of coalition and on the eve of the big mid-term test of local elections, it is a good time to assess that case. The Independent on Sunday takes the view that the received wisdom is likely to be wrong. In the past month, too, the Conservative part of the coalition has suddenly suffered serious turbulence, while the Liberal Democrats have sailed serenely on.

Mr Clegg had a good Budget. He secured much of the credit in advance for its most popular measure, the raising of the income tax threshold. He seems to have avoided most of the blame for the unpopular measures, even if, as John Rentoul points out today, he was largely responsible for the capping of tax relief on charitable donations.

Indeed, a striking change in recent weeks has been the virulent hostility towards Mr Cameron personally of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph. Where Mr Clegg had been the Prime Minister's crumple zone, now the Conservative press seems to be going for Mr Cameron himself.

In addition, Mr Clegg seems to have adjusted his pitch to the voters. Rather than emphasising Liberal Democrat policies that are distinctive and irrelevant, such as House of Lords reform, he now seems to have found a theme – childcare – that means something to the many, not the few. At last, he seems to be close to achieving the right blend of the self-interest and altruism that could appeal to large numbers of centre-ground voters. The cost of childcare is a pressing issue for many middle- and lower-income families, while good quality preschool care is also one of the most important ways to break the transmission of poverty through the generations.

The Liberal Democrat leader achieved something similar in his speech on the green economy last week, in which he sought to blend this country's opportunity as a leader in low-carbon technology with the global cause of mitigating climate change.

There remains much to criticise this Government for, and The Independent on Sunday disagrees with its policy on tax and spending, higher education, the NHS and much else besides. But there was no possible government after the last election that could have delivered all that this newspaper wanted. The effective choice was between a Conservative minority government and a coalition, and the latter has given some stability.

We give Mr Clegg credit for two things. One is that neither he nor Mr Cameron has sought to blame the other for decisions in which neither side got all that it wanted. The other is that the Liberal Democrats have made a positive difference. This Government is more concerned with social justice, civil liberties and the environment than it would be if it consisted wholly of Conservatives.

What if the conventional wisdom were wrong? It would not be the first time that someone whose career had been written off came back. Those who are prepared to keep an open mind should at least consider the question that Mr Clegg poses in his interview. If it were not for the presence of Liberal Democrats, would this Government not be much worse?

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