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Clegg’s leadership conundrum

17 September 2011

4:40 PM

17 September 2011

4:40 PM

If Nick Clegg has decided that he won’t run for re-election, what are the
implications? Today’s Daily Mail serializes a book by Jasper Gerard about the party, where he claims Clegg told his wife Miriam that he’ll only do one term as Deputy Prime
Minister. That makes sense. The Lib Dems will want to separate from the Tories before the next election, and that’ll probably mean choosing a new leader who can more plausibly attack Tories
during the campaign. Clegg will doubtless have post-Downing Street job offers involving various forms of European statesmanship, a political afterlife where he can speak Spanish from podiums
without being given funny looks. Given that the LibDems are currently forecast to crash from 57 to 15 MPs, I’d be surprised if
he stands for parliament again let alone for Lib Dem leader. And because I have come to admire Nick Clegg, I think this is a good thing.

Like David Cameron, Clegg has no great love for his party members. He’s more interested in leaving a decent governmental legacy. His mission is to prove that coalitions cannot just survive in
Britain, but that they can oversee radical change. He wants to be judged by results, not by opinion polls. But if he wanted to lead the Lib Dems in the post-coalition era, he’d be obsessed by
opinion polls. He’d have to embark on a sectarian war against the Tories, building up a list of where the virtuous Lib Dems outwitted or vetoed the wicked Conservatives. If he was staying,
he’d probably be a destructive force blocking reform, like Gordon Brown in the Blair government or Vince Cable now.

As things stand, Clegg will want to look back on something he helped to build over five years – be it school reform, deficit reduction or (here’s hoping) tax breaks for the low-paid.
Clegg demonstrated with the tuition fees reversal that he is deadly serious about compromise in order to make progress. Relieved of the burden of running the next Lib Dem election campaign, he may
just keep putting national interest ahead of party interest. There are worse things to have etched on one’s political epitaph. But if you can see coded leadership pitches coming from Cable,
Huhne and Farron in Lib Dem conference this week, you’ll know why.

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