Leader may have to fall on his sword for the greater good

Thu, Sep 27, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Nick Clegg believes his party will be in power again. The question is will he be leading it

ONE COULD be forgiven from reading parts of the British press over the past months for believing that the Tory/Lib Dem coalition was on the point of collapse, or that Nick Clegg faced a quiet, quick political death.

Neither is going to happen of course. Not now. Perhaps not at all, but certainly not soon. The press coverage illustrates, however, the fact that coalitions are no better understood, nor any better liked, than they were in May 2010.

In the reaction to Clegg’s conference, one political blogger criticised the Liberal Democrat leader for not laying out his intentions if a hung parliament was the order of the day after 2015. “All he could muster was that ‘speculation and rumour’ about various spates of Lib-Labbery and back-stabbery is all ‘based on a false, and deeply illiberal, assumption: that it is we, rather than the people, who get to decide,” the blogger complained.

The criticisms will be hard for any society used to the mechanics of coalitions to understand: what exactly, one wonders, was Clegg supposed to say? That he would deal with Labour, but not the Conservatives? British political opinion poses a problem, though, for the Lib Dems, as they seek to persuade voters that two is better than one. Clegg yesterday made quite a good attempt at it, even if the delivery was a little pedestrian on occasions: Labour’s past economic record means it cannot be trusted, while the Tories will not deliver fairness.

The sales pitch is not hard to understand. In fact, it has the merit of being true, in part at least, since Labour has yet to properly atone for its past sins while the Conservatives are drifting rightwards.

Nevertheless, the party in the middle, seeking leverage from both sides, is seen by large elements of British political and media opinion as a blackmailer, or a harlot, or both. To outsiders, this attitude is bizarre.

What the Lib Dems face is this: in the 1951 elections, Labour and the Tories together won more than 90 per cent of the vote. In 2010, the figure was approximately 65 per cent.

David Cameron was lambasted by his own party for failing to deliver the Holy Grail of single-party government, but the question is whether that is an achievable ambition any more.

A continued drop in vote-share for the larger parties – which has happened in every election since 1951 – would mean that neither Cameron, nor Labour’s Ed Miliband would win an outright majority in the next election.

The habit of two generations could, of course, be broken. Voters, repelled by the idea of coalition, could revert to the two big beasts in a bid for a clear result.

If they do not, then the issue for the Lib Dems is not whether they will lose seats: they will. Instead, it is whether they can win enough to keep themselves relevant.

However, Clegg will have to make a call about his political career before 2015. In an election now, he would not hold his Sheffield seat, if local opinion is a guide. And if that opinion holds, then Clegg faces the prospect of becoming “the Michael Portillo” of 2015 – the biggest head to fall. Faced with such a prospect, he would have to quit and to do so in 2014, to give his successor time.

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