Tory Sell-out, Pledge-breaker, Calamity, Born-to-be-a-Supermarket-Manager; Nick Clegg has picked up a number of unpleasant nicknames in his 22 months as deputy prime minister, but aside from all the personal attacks, the media is beginning to ask serious questions about his political capacity to remain on as the leader of Britain’s least popular third party.
His position is of course really dire; he daren’t pull out of the coalition prematurely lest it trigger a General Election, which polls suggest the Lib Dems would suffer badly in, so he is being held to ransom by David Cameron and the Conservative leadership, forced to approve their distinctly ‘un-liberal democrat’ policies. But it could yet get worse; as Lib Dem goals such as Lords reform, progressive taxation and European integration are trampled all over by their coalition partners, there is growing discontent within the Lib Dem rank and file over Clegg himself as leader.
The turning point may well have been the recent spring conference of the Lib Dems, a rare opportunity for the parliamentary party to meet up with their ever dwindling group of supporters, and take stock of their performance over the last year. On the face of things the mood was not that different to that in the Conservative ranks; disquiet and considerable grumbling about the realities of coalition and the daily concessions and compromises it brings, but ultimately gratitude that their party is at least out of opposition, and are getting a proportion of their policies enacted.
But the one major stumbling block for Liberal Democrat members is the controversial Health and Social Care Bill, which has just been passed. This paper and others have gone into great deal of the many issues that surround this Bill, but it seems to have really teared the junior coalition party apart as some members supported it, some were principally in favour but still wanted to substantially alter it, and others were hoping to abandon it completely. Nick Clegg and his inner circle fall into the first of these groups, but unfortunately the spring conference made clear that the majority of his members fall into the latter groups.
Despite all this, it is difficult to say which line the Lib Dems in government will take. They appear to be of the belief that if they support some of the Conservatives’ key policies they will be able trade this off in exchange for the implementation of some of their policies, but so far this has not happened. Clegg believes that if his party allows the NHS bill to pass, they will be allowed to create an elected House of Lords. There may have been an agreement that if the Lib Dems were allowed the referendum on the voting system, they would in turn support the Conservatives constituency boundary changes (which would almost definitely benefit the Tories at the expense of the other two main parties); AV failed to get off the ground, but the boundary changes look to go ahead regardless.
One of the biggest disagreements between the coalition parties is over taxation. The Lib Dems want to raise the income tax threshold, something that is happening gradually (although not paying income tax is hardly a positive if the reason is that you are unemployed) but they also want to increase the tax burden on the rich.
This looks increasingly unlikely with the announcement of the recent budget. Ed Miliband has said: “after this budget millions will be paying more while millionaires pay less.” It is completely understandable that serious questions are being asked about Clegg’s ability to assert himself within the Conservative party’s inner circle.
So what is the future for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats? Perhaps they might hold a coup and oust Clegg from the leadership, but who would want to take over as captain of this apparently sinking ship? With Chris Huhne out of the picture for the duration of his court appearance, we are left with deputy leader Simon Hughes and maybe President Tim Farron, both described as on the left of the party, but still outwardly supportive of the current leader. Of course there are three years left before the next general election is scheduled, and while I wouldn’t bet against the party being able to rehabilitate their image a little in that time, nor would I bet against a coup removing Nick Clegg, particularly if he continues to face future challenges with this current level of ineptitude.
So are there any green shoots for the party? Just because the party is becoming discredited, it doesn’t mean there aren’t still millions of liberals across the country who feel unable to support either Labour or the Tories. I guess the main upside is that if people everywhere expect the party to get crushed at the next elections, they can only exceed these expectations. The way the electoral system in this country is structured, it would take a really dramatic swing away from the Lib Dems for them to be replaced as the third party by the Greens or maybe UKIP, but with the boundary changes, who knows what could happen?
Would any future Labour minority wish to negotiate with Nick Clegg to form another coalition, whilst he remains such a toxic brand? The party as it stands at the moment is probably in terminal decline, but I doubt it will be eradicated to the point of no return. One thing is for certain though: the days of heady optimism and ‘Clegg-mania’ in the spring of 2010 are long gone, and all that’s left is a leader who will be remembered only for that one infamous broken pledge.