Steve Richards: The only question asked of Nick Clegg

What, he is asked on every interview, would you do in the event of a hung parliament?

Tuesday 16 March 2010 01:00

Suddenly it is almost impossible to switch on the TV or radio, read a newspaper or a political blog, without Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, featuring in some form or other. For a long time Clegg despaired of being noticed in the media. Now he is almost as ubiquitous as David Beckham, with slightly more hope of being an active player this summer.

There is, though, a twist. Every time Clegg is interviewed in this period of unusual prominence he is asked a variation on the same question. Sometimes it is all he is asked in interviews lasting a considerable length of time. What, Mr Clegg, would you do in the event of a hung parliament?

Occasionally the interview moves on a bit. Come on Mr Clegg, your party would never accept a deal with the Conservatives, would it? A shift of gear leads to the alternative route of inquiry. Your party would not prop up Gordon Brown, would it?

In recent days I must have read, watched or heard more interviews with leading Liberal Democrats than is healthy for anyone wishing to stay sane. Polls suggesting the likelihood of a hung parliament have done the trick. Clegg has become relevant, or at least potentially relevant, the key to commanding attention in politics.

As such he is more fortunate than his predecessors. Charles Kennedy fought elections when big Labour victories were certain. His opposition to the war in Iraq gave him a distinctive policy platform, but no one thought that his party would hold the balance of power and, therefore, the distinction was of limited value. No wonder Kennedy occasionally forgot the details of the Lib Dems' alternative to the council tax and probably never knew them in the first place.

Kennedy also had a sharp sense of what is relevant in British politics and a nightmarishly complicated policy that was never going to be implemented, and would not be part of any bargaining package in a hung parliament, was understandably low down on his somewhat erratic priorities. Paddy Ashdown laboured in an even tougher context, the phase in which Tony Blair walked on water during the build-up to the 1997 election. Cleverly, Ashdown made the Lib Dems seem relevant by forming a close relationship with Tony Blair, a rapport that was not quite as one-sided as mythology suggests. But in 1997 there was no talk of a hung parliament. Everyone apart from Blair knew Labour would walk it.

Now no party marches with unbounded confidence towards the next election. Indeed the speculation about a hung parliament tells us as much about the failures of the early Blairite New Labour strategy and the more recent approach of David Cameron as it does about the current state of the Liberal Democrats.

In the mid-1990s, Blair wanted the two so-called progressive parties to work together in order to bring about the "radical century", in contrast to the Tory-dominated previous hundred years. He favoured a merger and was quite open about this with Ashdown. Here we are in 2010 and the Lib Dems are still alive with more seats than ever and a threat to Labour in parts of the north of England. The radical century as envisaged by Blair in his early days looks shaky.

Cameron's project appears to be on the fragile side too. His polling advisers told him at the beginning of his leadership he must take on the Lib Dems as a major priority, which is partly why he discovered an enthusiasm for "green" issues that had not been a prominent feature in his career up until that point. Within months Cameron and George Osborne were suggesting to at least one Lib Dem MP that they should defect, as if the Conservatives had been "modernised" by a few speeches and a photocall with huskies on ice.

Several years later and Cameron faces a situation where the apparent durability of the Lib Dems might deprive him of an overall majority. His early strategy of following New Labour's route to power has not led to the humbling of Clegg's party, partly because the Tory leader has not changed his party as much as he claims.

Nonetheless the Liberal Democrats have only limited cause to feel pleased with the current situation. They are only relevant as a national force because of the possibility of a hung parliament, which means they are asked about little else. This brings dangers too. Arguably the biggest is the high risk that voters will turn away from them out of boredom.

I am an addict of discussions about hung parliaments. I thought I could listen to them, or take part in them, forever. But I was bored by the end of one I saw at the weekend with the party's home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, which explored the important question of the degree to which the party's membership held a lock over what the leadership could do in a hung parliament. In fact I was bored at the beginning of it. I became even more desperate when listening to Vince Cable exploring about eight different hypothetical situations involving an emergency budget this summer.

Clegg has laid out his four tests in a hung parliament, but in their flexible imprecision they remind me of Tony Blair's Chicago Speech in 1999, in which he highlighted criteria that could be used to justify war. Such was the deliberate lack of precision the Chicago Speech could have been used to oppose military action too. Similarly Clegg will not be unnecessarily impeded by his four tests if the election is inconclusive. They lead in several directions or none.

He might be impeded by other factors. In reality Clegg will not be a power broker because he will not be in control of events, let alone his own assertive party. He has acknowledged this by saying truthfully that the voters will decide. The result of the election will determine all that follows, the extent to which one party has more seats than another, the degree to which either Brown or Cameron is perceived to have lost. No one knows in advance what that result will be.

Clegg is simultaneously liberated and trapped. The national media is interested only in posing one question to him and he has acquired prominence solely because the question is suddenly pertinent. Yet he does not know the answer and will not until the election is over.

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