A week ago, I wrote that Nick Clegg had an important couple of weeks ahead of him. Now, the next couple of months are looking even more
significant for the Lib Dem leader. An article in today’s Independent
captures the tone of what faces him: in the aftermath of the Charles Kennedy defection talk, Lib Dems have been shocked into demanding more from their leader. As the paper puts it, senior Lib Dems
are calling for "more policy ‘wins’ … to demonstrate to doubters in his party that he was delivering on Liberal Decocrat priorities." Clegg probably hasn’t faced such
sustained internal pressure since he defeated Chris Huhne to the leadership in 2007.
What strikes me, though, is how shortsighted much of that pressure is. Some Lib Dem MPs are, apparently, unhappy with the scope of the coalition’s spending cuts – but did they not notice how,
under Clegg, they had become a party of fiscal restraint and, to some extent, "savage
cuts"? And as for more "policy wins," the demand is perhaps to be expected – but why wasn’t it raised as vigourously when the coalition agreement was first published? I suppose
falling poll ratings do a lot to change a party’s attitude.
In any case, Clegg will need to counter his detractors – especially with the Labour leadership contenders, including Ed Balls this morning, doing all they can to leverage the situation against him. This, as we have
seen, will mean an emphasis on issues like "social mobility". It will probably also mean a few policy concessions won from the Tories. But it will also require Clegg to surpass himself on
set-piece occasions such as his conference speech in September. For once, the Lib Dems’ bash may be the most compelling of them all.