Pack off Nick Clegg and send for Vince! Only a total Cleggectomy can save the Lib Dems now

Now that muted public contempt has mutated into raucous public derision, the moment is surely ripe for the Lib Dem musical. Charles Hawtrey can play Lembit Opik

Matthew Norman
Tuesday 26 February 2013 19:21
Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg Visits Eastleigh Ahead Of The Eastleigh By-election
Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg Visits Eastleigh Ahead Of The Eastleigh By-election

The clock is ticking towards the 2014 Academy Awards, and the pressure is on.

Within six months, the movie we have craved for a while, but for which the appetite is suddenly insatiable, must be written, shot, edited and put on general release to have a chance of Oscar glory. So in a bid to kick-start the process, I offer this idea for the pre-title sequence in Scandals In Sandals: The Lib-Dem Musical, with casting suggestions as appropriate.

The year is 2006, and at a karaoke party at the home of Lembit Opik (Charles Hawtrey), fiancée Gabriela Irimia and twin sister Monica (Jedward) reprise a poignant ballad. “I never ask where do you go/ I never ask what do you do,” they trill, “Come and smile, don’t be shy/ Touch my bum, this is life.” Encouraged to shrug off the coyness of which so much has been latterly been heard, Lord Rennard (Richard Griffiths) swigs deeply from Charlie Kennedy’s intravenous drip for Dutch courage, and takes the Cheekies’ invitation at face value.

When he touches Gabriela’s bum, mayhem ensues. A chivalrous Lembit swings a punch at him, but slips on an Airfix model of an asteroid, and catches a dozing Sir Menzies Campbell (JR Hartley) on the temple. “Mark, Mark, help me, Mark!” cries the stricken leader as he collapses to the shagpile. “Where’s Mark Oaten?” “In the bath,” mutters a peevish Nick Clegg (Paul Rudd). “Nick? Is that you? What happened? Tell me it wasn’t Chris Rennard again.” “I have been made indirectly aware of a non-specific incident, Ming, but I was playing Blind Man’s Bluff with Sarah Teather (Wee Jimmy Krankie) when it all kicked off, and never saw a thing. Besides, I never ask where does he go, I never ask what does he do. Chris is Chris, this is life.”

Maybe it is political life, Nick, but not as anyone sane would know it, and seven years on from that flashback scene we find Ming’s successor mercilessly stalked by political death. The whiff of late-stage terminal crisis settles over him, as it does whenever muted public contempt mutates into raucous public derision, and he stands before us naked and exposed.

After tuition fees, failing to deliver House of Lords reform, learning of David Cameron’s European “veto” only after the event, and the other humiliations which have steered the Lib Dems towards electoral oblivion, what were the remaining threadbare garments preserving this emperor’s modesty? In reverse order, as favoured by the late Eric Morley, those rags were as follows: 3) appearing to be a semi-competent party manager; 2) seeming about as honest as our atrophied expectations of politicians suggest is feasible; and 1) being a modern metropolitan guy, committed to equality of all types and a sworn enemy of retrograde nastiness of which his portly friend is accused by a burgeoning catalogue of Lib Dem women.

Gone, gone and gone again. With not a stitch left, he stands before us nakedly revealed as cowardly, duplicitous and sensationally feeble, though he is not wholly impotent yet. Far from it, he has developed a superpower. He is now Captain Logicide, Slayer of Words. People have been chipping away at “specific” for ages, by confusing it with “pacific”, but without his intervention it would have survived. Now specific means “far, far less specific than non-specific”, and the paradox renders it extinct.

A glance at a rare unredacted portion of Jeremy Paxman’s testimony about the Jimmy Savile debacle clarifies this. When Merion Jones told him he was investigating Savile for Newsnight, he replied “Oh well, I don’t think I need to ask you any further what that’s about.” Mr Jones could not have been more non-specific, and Paxo instantly and entirely grasped the point.

In defence of his apparent mendacity, I suppose Clegg might argue the “non-” in “non-specific”, as with the P of Pfeiffer, is silent, and that he actually meant “specific”. But he may feel his jester’s bells are at enough risk of metal fatigue as it is. Asked in a pre-Rennard questionnaire what he might do for his next career, he had a dig at his karaoke host by implying that ex-Lib Dem MPs and stand-up comedy make unnatural bedfellows. But even if a full-on coupling is out of the question, on this form he’d be mad to rule out at least playfully tweaking the bum of mirth with the one-man show Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves: How I Destroyed My Party In Two And A Half Years. You’d buy a ticket for that.

My own preference, however late in the day it is for retraining, is for a crack at medicine. Clegg has always struck me as a breathily concerned, over-sincere chap bizarrely misrouted to Brussels and Westminster en route to a fine career as a rural GP. He’d be great at that. Who would break distasteful news more sensitively? “Now it’s nothing to worry about,” he’d reassure unsnapping a latex glove, “but you picked something up in Bangkok. The antiobiotics will quickly clear up the discharge, and you should be fine to resume, er, nocturnal relations in six weeks.” “Yes but what have I got?” “Frankly, it beats the hell out of me.” “ But Dr Clegg, you must have some idea.” “I’m sorry, but I don’t. Not the foggiest. You see, it’s non-specific urethritis.”

The STD ailing the Liberal Democrats today is so far beyond the efficacy of antibiotics that any MP, peer or activist unable to identify a radical Cleggectomy as the only solution clearly shares his capacity for willful blindness. If only there were a recent precedent – such as, ooh, I dunno, toxic fall-out from a leader ignoring persistent and detailed claims of a senior colleague’s misdemeanours – to offer guidance about the perils of the ostrich position.

The best possible result for the Lib Dems in Eastleigh is a third place finish behind Ukip – a scenario taken from the silver linings playbook, since it would clarify that the party is threatened with extinction, and oblige Clegg to confront the hopelessness of his position. The danger is that they will cling on, as the odds suggest, which would leave them dithering over whether to remove their heads from the sand, and remove him in Vince Cable’s favour. Whatever the consequences of that for this wretched Coalition, Clegg has now progressed from a liability into an existential threat. If they wish to avert it, time is short. As with Scandals In Sandals, there is not a moment to lose.

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