It’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for Nick Clegg. He’s a decent man who took a tough decision to put his party into coalition with the Conservatives, and lost half of his support as a result. Tomorrow, his party will be hammered. His great miscalculation was imagining that in England the Lib Dems would emerge with a list of achievements voters would applaud – as they did in the 2003 Holyrood elections when, after four years of coalition, the Lib Dems overtook the Scottish Conservatives to become the third-largest party.
On the radio the other day Clegg vainly paraded his boast list, his own version of Kelly Clarkson’s Because of You.
‘It’s because of us that 27 million people have received huge tax cuts.
It’s because of us there’s been the biggest expansion of apprenticeships in a generation.
It’s because of us that we’ve had the biggest liberal reform of the pension system, ending the discrimination against women in the pension system for generations.
It’s because of us little toddlers are receiving free healthy [meals].
It’s because of us because there’s better childcare.
It’s because of us there’s equal marriage.
It’s because of us there’s shared parental leave.
…And the list goes on, that is not a bad record for a party which very bravely stepped up to the plate in 2010, and by the way, the greatest achievement of all, created the political stability without which the economic recovery simply now would not be taking place.’
But no one, other than political anoraks, could name a real Lib Dem reform other than the bizarre and regressive decision that the state should pay for the school meals of kids from wealthier families.
So what went wrong? I’d argue that Nick Clegg got coalition wrong. His party should have taken control of entire departments, so its victories could be more visible. Instead he marched his MPs into a political blender with the Tories and flicked the ‘on’ switch. He started off boasting that there’d be no such thing as a Tory policy, or a Lib Dem policy – but a coalition policy. As things turned out, the Tories claimed all of the credit for the best ideas.
In Scotland between 1999 and 2003, the Lib Dems were associated with departments. Ross Finnie with agriculture (he acquitted himself brilliantly during the foot-and-mouth crisis), Jim Wallace as Justice Minister, another star of the coalition. Their performances gave the Lib Dems gravitas, and widened their appeal.
In government, Clegg ended up playing the saboteur – and, disgracefully, ended up compiling lists of other people’s policies that he’d been able to thwart. Voters were never likely to be impressed by a party that prided itself on what it was able to wreck. Government is about creating. He’s right in saying that the Lib Dems nudged the Tories into gay marriage, that they forced Osborne to increase the tax threshold. But they never retained ownership of such moves.
Next time – if there is a next time – the Lib Dems should insist upon entire departments. Ones that speak to their core values: climate change, for example. It’s not coalition that did for the LibDems, it’s the way that they did coalition. It was bad for them. But is that a bad thing for Britain? I’d argue that the Lib Dem influence was diluted because, in every department, the Tories managed to keep tabs on them. As my colleague Freddy Gray mentioned, word is that Clegg wants education – which would be a calamity. But at least Clegg would be able to fight the next election on what he had been able to build, not what he had been able to destroy.