Nick Clegg still has time to make a gracious exit as Liberal Democrat leader - with head held high

The first Liberal leader in government since the Second World War has enacted policies dear to his party. Cable could takeover without seeming too disloyal

Mary Ann Sieghart
Friday 21 September 2012 20:57
John Rentoul: 'The Lib Dems are paying the main price for the Government's incoherence'
John Rentoul: 'The Lib Dems are paying the main price for the Government's incoherence'

What does it tell us about politics and modern life that a spoof video of Nick Clegg crooning “I’m sorry, I’m sorry; I’m so, so sorry” is going to convince more voters than the party political broadcast it’s based on? Yesterday, a satirical website, The Poke, autotuned the Lib Dem leader’s voice to turn his mea culpa about breaking his pledge on tuition fees into a pappy pop song, and it came over surprisingly well. Now it’s gone viral to zillions of voters in a way that the original would never have done.

Well, it tells us that traditional politics feels ever more anachronistic and formal to an audience craving authenticity and emotional connection. Most politicians don’t know how to make voters smile or feel warm inside – the sort of feelings people get several times a day from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Clegg’s original broadcast seemed false because it was stiff and scripted, and he had to put on a silly cry-baby frown to make it look genuine. It only became genuine when we were able to laugh at the spoof and he was able to show a sense of humour by giving The Poke permission to put the song on iTunes and donate the proceeds to the Sheffield Children’s Hospital.

Some politicians have a gift for letting their guard down and giving voters a sense of their authentic selves. Boris Johnson is the prime example. John Prescott and Mo Mowlam managed it. Voters reward them by allowing them to veer wildly off-message without punishment. None of today’s party leaders has this candid, authentic openness of heart – which may be why two of them, Clegg and David Cameron, are vulnerable to rivals who do. Ed Miliband is saved only by the fact that none of his colleagues has it either.

It’s because voters want an end to tight-lipped, tight-arsed politics that polls show the Tories would do better led by Boris, and the Lib Dems would do better led by Vince Cable. That’s not to say either man would in practice be a better leader – I certainly have my doubts about Boris – but, between now and 2015, MPs in both parties worried about losing their seats are bound to wonder whether they’d save them with a more voter-friendly guy at the top.

Given the state of the polls, it’s odd that Cameron’s MPs are more disaffected than Clegg’s. After all, Cameron is many lengths ahead of Miliband in all the categories that matter: eloquent, tough, prime-ministerial, smart and likeable. Clegg, meanwhile, scored his worst ever satisfaction rating in this week’s Ipsos MORI poll: only 23 per cent of voters are satisfied with his performance, down from 31 per cent last month, while 66 per cent are dissatisfied. He even gets a negative rating from his own voters.

So will this apology do any good? Well, it can’t do him much harm. People who think the apology is risible already think he is risible – they won’t vote for him anyway. But some undecideds may think better of him now, or at least be more willing to listen to him, and the Lib Dems only need an increase of a few percentage points to make a big difference to the number of seats they win or lose. At least it means Clegg won’t go into the 2015 election campaign unable to answer the question: “Why should we believe anything you say after what happened last time?”

But that assumes that he will go into the next election campaign as leader. And it’s not a given. His MPs say loyally that bad poll ratings are to be expected when the Lib Dems are the junior partner in a Coalition trying to deal with the worst economic crisis for several generations. But privately they must acknowledge that Clegg has made rather too many unforced errors for his own good.

Signing the pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees was the most obvious one. He knew the policy was unsustainable, and he didn’t even argue for it in the Coalition negotiations. But the Tories gave him a let-out in the Coalition Agreement: the Lib Dems were allowed to abstain when the Bill came to the Commons. Clegg could have outsourced all policy on tuition fees to the Conservatives and abstained. Instead, he put his own man in charge – Cable – and took as many of his MPs as he could through the “Yes” lobby.

Clegg called the AV referendum too early and fought a lacklustre campaign. When he lost, he had the chance to demand a stop to the NHS reforms, but flunked it. He then put all his efforts into a House of Lords Reform Bill that was always going to be blocked by Conservative MPs. After that, he showed bad faith by withdrawing his support for Cameron’s boundary changes, which were supposed to be the quid pro quo for the AV referendum.

So the poor Lib Dem ratings aren’t just down to the frictions of coalition and a lack of economic growth. It’s quite likely that a better leader could get the party back into the mid-teens at least. It’s very unlikely that anyone in the Lib Dems would actually challenge Clegg for the leadership. But they may not have to. For Clegg, if he wants it, has the chance to make a gracious exit before the next election. He could ask Cameron to make him the UK’s next EU Commissioner, a position that comes vacant in 2014. It’s a job that’s both important – by no means a demotion – and for which he is eminently well qualified.

Clegg could leave with his head held high. He would be the first Liberal leader to have taken his party into government since the Second World War. He would have shown that the Lib Dems could be taken seriously as a party of government, not just of protest. And he would have enacted some policies – such as taking the lower-paid out of the tax system – that are dear to his party.

Meanwhile, Vince Cable, a man who is less afraid to speak from the heart, would be able to take over without having to mount a disloyal coup. Unfairly, perhaps, Cable is less reviled than Clegg for his side-stepping on tuition fees. And, because of his political background, he would be able to work with either main party if there were another hung parliament. I can’t yet imagine him making a successful viral video. But it’s interesting that, like Boris, he’s one of only a few politicians who’s known by his first name. That’s the way to get noticed – and liked – in the punchy, informal internet age.

Twitter: MASieghart

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