Nick Clegg Might Be Unpopular, but There Will Be No Regicide
Behr, Rafael, New Statesman (1996)
A turbulent summer has thrown established political calculations into disarray, and since the Westminster establishment had calculated that Nick Clegg was finished, disarray feels like a reprieve for the Liberal Democrats.
The Tories' authoritarian reaction to the riots has given Clegg's party a much-needed opportunity to sound distinctly and dissentingly liberal. Some MPs were openly queasy about the Conservative idea of using benefit confiscation as society's way of exacting vengeance on rioters and their families. Clegg wrote a thoughtful article on 26 August defending the Human Rights Act, days after David Cameron attacked it as a charter for over entitled hooligans.
That is not a populist position, but the Lib Dem leader has pretty much given up on being popular in the short term. Efforts to redeem his reputation after last year's screeching handbrake turn on university tuition fees were counterproductive. Clegg's inner circle now accepts that the leader's attempts to justify the move simply reminded people of their grievance. After the party's simultaneous hammering in local, Scottish and referendum ballots in May, Clegg adopted a lower profile. Voters, in the words of one close aide, "just wanted Nick to go away for a while".
Some recent opinion polls now have the Lib Dems touching the high teens. Others show them struggling to make double figures. Either way a miraculous renaissance is not imminent, "We are bumping along the bottom" is the stark judgement of one senior party strategist.
Clegg's only hope of recovery lies in being seen to carve out, over time, a distinctly Lib Dem agenda in government. The post-riot response might not have colonised new electoral terrain but it at least helped the party feel good about its liberal credentials, which is a prerequisite to lost followers feeling the same way.
A more promising arena for the Lib Dems to flaunt some principled agitation is the battle currently under way over banking reform. On 12 September John Vickers will publish the final report of his commission, set up in June last year, to examine ways to prevent banks from wrecking the economy again. The report is expected to recommend "ring-fencing" the high street end of banks from their higher-risk investment operations - the wild, "casino" side - but without breaking up the institutions.
The Chancellor, George Osborne, backs this approach. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, prefers the idea of complete separation - carving up the banking behemoths.
The bankers themselves have been lobbying for the meekest possible regulation. They, along with many Tories, revile Cable as a menace to the City, which is not such a bad image to have in the current political climate. Cable has some leverage in the implicit threat of presenting Osborne as the handmaiden of unrepentant finance. As one Lib Dem cabinet minister puts it: "Voters still blame Labour for the problems in the economy, but they blame the banks more and the Tories don't want to get on the wrong side of that.
In terms of Lib Dem strategy, guerrilla warfare against the banks is largely a maverick, Cable operation, permitted but not directed by Clegg. The Business Secretary runs his own, semi-autonomous, lone wolf economic policy within the Lib Dems. …