Clegg gambles on anti-Ukip, pro-EU stance
Embattled Liberal Democrats are parading their pro-European credentials ahead of European Parliament elections in May
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), was not in York at the weekend but he was, nonetheless, everywhere at the Liberal Democrats’ spring gathering.
Farage leads a xenophobic, frightened, insular and isolationist party, the Lib Dems declared in chorus – led by their leader, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.
The three days in York marked the beginning of the party’s campaign to protect its 11 European Parliament seats in the May elections and prepare for the general election in 2015.
The targeting of Ukip is entirely deliberate, and the Lib Dems, hardened by nearly four years in office, are remarkably confident that it will work.
In particular, the focus on Ukip, second in the opinion polls for the May elections, offers the Lib Dems everything a party craves: an enemy to define oneself against.
The Conservatives are split on the European Union, while Ed Miliband’s Labour is silent, because of its own divisions and fears of antagonising voters who could pitch Ukip’s way.
Clegg has gambled by challenging Farage to public debates: one on radio later this month and the other, to be carried live on BBC2 in early April, after a rush by interested broadcasters.
The encounters will offer both the opportunity of dominating debate; though the two men – both articulate performers, if Farage does a better “common man” routine – have different targets.
Farage will focus on immigration, while Clegg feels there is a sufficiently large constituency who believe in the UK’s place in the EU, even if they have gripes.
Such people, he told delegates before they left York yesterday, believe in “Great Britain, not Little England”, in “hope, not fear”, in “the future, not the past”.
Declaring his party “the guardians of an open, tolerant Britain”, Clegg issued an appeal to new voters who “may not have voted for us before: it doesn’t matter, that’s the past.
“What matters now is the kind of country you want to live in. The kind of nation you want us to be,” he went on, in one of the best speeches of his career.
The numbers in such a constituency may have grown following Conservative home office minister James Brokenshire’s immigration speech last week. In it, he blamed immigration on “wealthy metropolitan elites”, saying that for too long its benefits went to those who wanted “cheap tradesmen and services”, not ordinary people.
The Lib Dems’ pro-EU stand – one based on UK national interests, rather than “starry-eyed affection”, as Clegg put it yesterday – will infuriate many, but they were never likely supporters.
The argument has been easier to make since fears that waves of Romanians and Bulgarians would arrive immediately after free movement controls lapsed on January 1st ended up being widely mocked.
However, the Office of National Statistics is to produce fresh statistics – ones that will be seized upon by a British press fixated by the issue – just days before voters go to the polls.
A decent European Parliament result for the Lib Dems would settle nerves heading into the last year of government.
However, Clegg is betting heavily. If the strategy fails – and there are some worst-case predictions warning that the party could end up with nothing in May – then he could be left with an arrowless quiver.
The numbers gathered in York for the spring conference were the largest the party has enjoyed since 2010, marking a fledgling confidence about its future.
Despite all of the hysterical speculation back then, it seems definite now – barring something extraordinary coming out of left-field – that the alliance will run its full course.
In recent months the Lib Dems have sought to differentiate themselves at every turn from the Conservatives, often to the annoyance of their bigger coalition partner.
It continues. On Saturday the chief secretary to the treasury, Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander, trumpeted plans to bring the personal tax allowance up to £12,500 if the party gets back into power.
The Conservatives are thinking likewise, following a cack-handed attempt earlier this month by party chairman Grant Schapps to brand them the “party of workers”.
The Lib Dems have grounds for irritation, since the Conservatives long opposed their efforts to increase the tax allowance substantially during the life of this coalition.
In office, the Lib Dems have struggled to get their core messages across, particularly since so many of them centred on failed attempts at constitutional reform.
House of Lords reform died, as did a bid to replace first-past-the-post voting rules with the Alternative Vote. Equally, it abandoned its plans to abolish tuition fees. Instead, it tripled them.
On Saturday, Clegg spoke of how doom-sayers had been wrong about the effect of tuition fees: student numbers are up; so, too, are the numbers coming from ethnic minorities.
However, facts are one thing; perception is another. Here, the Lib Dems suffered irreparable reputational damage. “It keeps coming up on the doorsteps,” one delegate told The Irish Times .
Cursed with self-inflicted damage such as that caused by the tuition fees issue, the party faces the loss of some high-profile MPs, such as Don Foster in Bath, and the incumbency factor they enjoyed in campaigns.
Polling mentioned in hushed tones suggests its vote has held up where it has MPs, but has haemorrhaged elsewhere, especially where Labour is the competition. The third party in British politics still hopes.
Mark Hennessy is London Editor