If Nick Clegg was a weak-willed, crowd-pleasing charlatan the the front page of yesterday’s Independent would not have read “Clegg: there is no future for the Lib Dems as a left party”. Turning up to a Lib Dem
conference and saying there’s no point in being a party of lefty protesters is like William Shatner telling
delegates at a Star Trek convention to "get a life". He wants them to be a mature party of reform – many of them prefer to throw stones. His stance at conference is certainly
And it fits a theme. For weeks now, Clegg has been surprising those (myself included) who did not take him seriously, by emerging as one of the boldest and most articulate advocates of reform. He
is now advancing arguments about the need for tough-love welfare changes, taking on the teaching unions and shrinking the state. To him, it’s vital because it shows that coalitions cannot merely
exist in Britain but direct a radical government. As a result, he has plenty of unpopular decisions to defend. I say in my News of the World column today that those at the Lib Dem conference
have been used to veggie-lite fare from their leaders. Clegg will walk on stage wearing more red meat than Lady Gaga.
I was an advocate of minority Conservative government, and my heart sunk when Cameron concluded (perhaps rightly) that if he couldn’t win in May then he would be unlikely to win a second
election in October. But looking at this government, it is bolder than the Conservative one which I had expected. Before election day, Theresa May was in charge of welfare reform. Now we have IDS.
There’s Gove in schools, of course, and Nick Herbert in policing is an unexpected bonus. Even Andrew Lansley is seeking to reform the NHS.
And then, Clegg. There have been plenty of tensions in the coalition. But he has been on the right side of the battle every time. He’s a major ally for IDS in welfare reform, arguing that the
Treasury has no moral right to confiscate a penny earned by the low-paid. He wrote a piece in The
Times on this last week: it’s my Exhibit A in his defence.
He’s also in favour of school reform, and even believes he came up with the idea ten years ago writing a pamphlet. Gove will not dispute that: he believes, as Reagan did, that it’s
amazing what you can get done if you don’t care who takes the credit. Call it the Clegg/Baker/Adonis/Gove/Swedish/Obama schools agenda – but Clegg hopes LibDem activists will remember
this was their policy. His beef is with the pupil premium: that the voucher is worth more for poor kids. I’m in favour of that, as long as schools can make a profit – and therefore have
a financial incentive to compete with the sink schools. If the incentive is clear enough, sink schools will be eradicated by the end of the decade.
Exhibit B is Clegg’s speech on
social mobility. A very well thought-out thesis. It would have been easy for him to play party politics, to manufacture a Lib Dem v Tory row. But the battles he has chosen have served to
strengthen the coalition and make for a bolder government that it’s easier to cheer on.
And when the IFS launched it’s “appoint Chote or we’ll shoot” report on the budget, claiming it was unfair by dint of their decile tables, CoffeeHousers may remember the
stunned reaction of the Treasury. Guido wrote a very powerful post asking: what does Osborne
expect? If you decide to accept your enemy’s premise (i.e. that this decile table is some arbiter of fairness), is it a surprise that you can be stung like this? No Tory minister seemed able
to come up with a response: the effects of Osborne’s disastrous 2005-08 economic disarmament policy are still painfully obvious.
But it was Clegg who properly socked it to the IFS – and Exhibit C is his response through an article
for the FT. He took the IFS apart intellectually, saying that billions had been squandered by Labour trying to manipulate a spreadsheet moving people from just below some imaginary line to just
above it. He addressed the hollowness of “IFS-speak” showing that, by its decile charts, if a workless couple get a £5 handout it counts as “fairness” but if they are
helped into work then it does not. Clegg was tackling one of the most destructive ideas in politics. As he rightly said, for 13 years Labour produced policies which flattered IFS decile graphs
instead of fighting poverty.
And now, in Liverpool, Clegg is telling his party that it’s make-your-mind-up time. Defending hard choices is the price of power – and he’s willing to pay that price. This is not
some fake battle. Clegg knows he’s already lost the ‘social democrat’ voters: internal polling shows they have fallen away from his party like a continental shelf. But the
word ‘liberal’ is also gaining ground. Hold your nerve, he tells his party: what we’ve done may not win us votes, but it right and it is liberal. This is not an opportunistic
argument, but one of principle. It marks a noble change from a familiar (and false) argument one hears all too often in politics: "this may or may not be right, but it will win us votes and
its tactically clever".
So I’m left wondering: on what ground might I have reservations about Nick Clegg? I disagree with him on Europe and Trident. Stories about how he pleaded with Brown to keep faith in a LibLab coalition suggests a man of
opportunism rather than principle. And while he has redeemed himself since, this week may be the high water mark of his boldness – depending on how hard his party slap him down.
I know that Osborne remains the de facto deputy, doing the motoring when No.10 slips into neutral. But on the issues that I regard as the most important: welfare reform, spending reform and school
reform, he’s not only on the right side but actively fighting for it. The bad decisions (releasing prisoners, 50p tax, protecting the NHS budget) were made by blokes with blue rosettes.
I’ve supported the Conservatives in most general elections, but struggle to muster a tribal dislike to Clegg. My admiration for him personally does not extent to the Lib Dems in general, many
of whom I regard as deeply suspicious. But that social mobility speech was the turning point for me: I realised that I genuinely rate him. As CoffeeHousers know, I have long argued that the real
dividing line in British politics runs across political parties: between the reformers, who wish to empower the masses, and between the statists/paternalists who wish to keep power for an elite.
Clegg, Laws and even Danny Alexander are on the right side of this dividing line.
Admiration from the likes of me won’t do him many favours amongst his own party, though, and the Lib Dems may very well be heading for a split. I do wonder at times if Clegg wants one, and
wishes to lead a “Liberal” party. But, in any case, what he’s offering looks very much like real leadership.