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It’s time to end the Liberal Democrats’ Fish Slapping Dance

7 February 2014

7:23 AM

7 February 2014

7:23 AM

Danny Alexander offers his ‘dead body’ to stop a non-existent tax cut. David Laws accuses Michael Gove of thwarting some imagined plan on school inspectors. Each day seems to bring a fresh attempt at Liberal Democrats finding a new reason to thwack the Conservatives – while the Tories cheerfully take it. Britain’s government is starting to look less like coalition and more like the Fish Slapping Dance from Monty Python (above) and in my Telegraph column today, I ask what the point is.

I’ve come to respect Nick Clegg, and although CoffeeHousers will disagree, I regard him as an unusually decent politician who had wanted to build his opposition-loving rabble into a principled party championing British liberalism. ‘We’ve lost the left-wing half of our party,’ one of his advisers explained to me after the election. ‘They have gone. Like a continental shelf. We’re never getting them back.’ But at least, ran the argument, thanks to this fixed-term parliament act the LibDems had five years to rebuild from the centre. So how did that work out? The graph, below:

Clegg’s South African strategist has run the figures, and told him this won’t work. His only hope is to do a reverse ferret and try to get that ‘continental shelf’ back. The only chance of keeping the seats is to go on bended knee to win back those voters who defected to Labour. So this means beating up Tories. And picking fights over bizarre issues – the part-time board of Ofsted, whether councils could add a further £7 a year to their local tax. Whether to break a soft-boiled egg at sharp or blunt end. That kind of thing.

You can see the logic. Clegg is in a panic: as Andrew  Adonis observed in his account of coalition negotitions, the Lib Dems are ‘a small party preoccupied with survival.’ The LibDems are not, like the Tories and Labour, an old torchbearer for a school of political thought. The party was created in 1988, predated by Rick Astley’s music career (and he may well outlast them). Like John Major in 1996, Clegg genuinely fears his party may collapse. So I, for one, can understand his Tory-baiting strategy. And what Tory wouldn’t wish Clegg well in stealing votes back from Labour? If he gets his vote back to what it was, Cameron will walk back into Downing St in 2015.

But having decided on this Tory-baiting strategy, I think time has come for Clegg to do the decent thing, and pursue this strategy in opposition – from the back benches. He has many achievements in government from which to be proud. Ideally, he intended to pursue this Liberal thing up to the end – and that meant fighting the election in 2015 boasting about things like school reform, and unclenching the fist of local authorities in a truly liberal way.

It’s sad, seeing Lib Dems pretend they are now against the school reforms that they were so instrumental in delivering  – all because they have concluded that they do, after all, need the votes of students, lecturers and the local authorities. They are disowning their achievements in hope of reclaiming their old voters. Hence the contortions.

So Danny Alexander, who I admire, now has to pretend that keeping the top rate of tax at 47 per cent is an ‘over my dead body’ issue. A shame: he’s too sensible, too economically literate, to genuinely hold that view. I had come around to the idea of genuine shared liberal common ground between the Liberals and Tories – embodied by energetic, intelligent and liberal politicians like Jeremy Browne, David Laws, Danny Alexander and Clegg himself.

But Clegg couldn’t find any votes there, and now is in a panic trying to make the LibDems into the Party that Lands More Punches on Cameron than Miliband. He is bring driven to this position by the exigencies of the time. But let him adopt this position from the back benches. It would be better for everyone. The longer things continue as they are, the more tempted Cameron will be to bring out his big fish, thwack his deputy and bring this sorry sketch to a close.

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