Nick Clegg has clearly had an exciting Christmas. He used his first press conference of the year to talk about people playing footsie, exes leaving late-night voicemail messages, frantic January sales shopping and body parts. He was using all these vivid images, dreamt up while he was working out how to deal with Labour’s ‘decapitation strategy’ in his own constituency, to make a pitch for him to remain in power for as long as possible. Forever, hopefully, but at least after the next General Election.
The Deputy Prime Minister warned repeatedly of the risks of ‘having a parliament which is held hostage, every hour and every day and every week, by a shifting array of factionalist parties’. He also said that a government without a formal coalition would resemble the mayhem of the January sales. Of course, he would say that, wouldn’t he, given he needs a formal coalition to hold on to power. And perhaps all these warnings about the dangers of administrations that are cobbled together may sound a little hollow given similar sorts of warnings were being bandied about regarding the dangers of coalitions in 2010.
But Clegg doesn’t just want to persuade the electorate that the Lib Dems should be part of a formal coalition. He also wants to hang onto all the roles and details of the current coalition that have made the Lib Dems so powerful within government. Last week I reported that Conservatives were drawing up a list of criteria for a new Lib Dem-Tory coalition designed to weaken Clegg’s grip on power. Today when the Deputy Prime Minister was asked about these demands, including that he loses his chairmanship of the Home Affairs cabinet committee that signs off most domestic policy, he retorted that he wouldn’t be taking his marching orders from Tory backbenchers, and pretended not to know the name of the 1922 Committee.
‘I find it almost endearing that whatever this committee is called, it has sort of portentously drawn itself up to its greatest height and said we shall determine how Whitehall will operate in the event of another coalition. It’s completely absurd and it’s not their role to do and I certainly wouldn’t take my marching instructions from Conservative backbenchers.’
He added that there was no point in being in government without proper power:
‘I’m interested in doing what I think is right for the country in line with the values of my party. I’m not interested in sort of coalition at any cost. Of course not. There’s no point in being in Coalition unless you can do things. And the point about the way in which we’ve constructed this coalition, including by the way the kind of mechanics in the boiler room that you alluded to, including me chairing the biggest cabinet committee, the Home Affairs cabinet committee that deals with most domestic policy is to make sure that the thing that we do as a government are supported by the coalition as a whole otherwise you can’t govern and I would not be interested, of course I wouldn’t be interested in a coalition in which you’re in office but you’re not actually in power to do anything, That’s completely pointless, I’m not interested in sort of just having Lib Dem bums on seats for the sake of it. We’re there to do what we think is right for the country and that’s why as I said before I really won’t be taking my marching instructions from Conservative backbenchers when it comes, if it comes, to thrashing out another coalition agreement.’
The point is that if Conservative MPs do get a secret ballot on whether or not to approve a second coalition, they will press for curbs on Clegg. And though he insists that he’s not interested in coalition at any cost, he also will need to agree to some changes if the party is to approve a new arrangement at all. Which he knows.
Clegg did talk about other things than the importance of the Lib Dems being in power for ever and ever. He confirmed that his party would meet the demand from NHS England boss Simon Stevens for £8bn funding boost, and that it would ‘set out detail in the coming days’ about how that gap would be filled. This would make them the only party to promise to fill the funding gap.
As for that voicemail from an ex, Clegg didn’t tell us whether he was speaking from his own vast experience, but used it as the latest way of teasing Labour about its economic credibility. And the footsie was between the Tories and Ukip.
He also claimed that a vote for the Lib Dems was ‘the only vote for economic security against economic turmoil, for stability against uncertainty and for the national interest against petty populism’, adding vaguely threateningly that ‘that is the case I will make every week till 7 May’. Given the other two parties have set out their General Election campaigns today too, you might be forgiven for hoping that those weeks until 7 May go rather quickly.