Monday, 25 February 2008

Nick Clegg's Lib Dems

Leader of the Liberal Democrats is the hardest job in British politics. Chancellor of the Exchequer is pretty tough. Leader of the Opposition has its frustrations for sure. As Prime Minister you are doomed to a number of years of accelerated aging and personal abuse. At least with all these jobs, you have some control over your destiny. At least if you make mistakes they really matter.

As Leader of the Lib Dems if you make a mistake it's only your personal pride that takes the hit, a wider consequence is difficult to discern. The position does matter though. Should there be a hung parliament you become rather important. If opinion polls are whereabouts they are now at the time of the general election then Nick Clegg will come under a considerable amount of scrutiny. The question will be, do we want this lot holding the whip hand in the new Government? If the answer is 'no', public opinion could swing one way or the other but decisively away from the notion of a hung parliament much as happened in 1992.

To get your share of media space as Leader of the Lib Dems you need something different to say apart from 'we're not Labour or Tory', you need to be personally and politically effective, and you need to be running a party that does not want the introduction of insane policies- say, closing prisons and turning them in the warehouse network behind a state-run drugs supply operation manned by former inmates or some such. How is Nick Clegg doing?

Well, he's been rather ineffective so far. Today's call for a euro-referendum is typical of the worthy but slightly off target position that he's been taking. For a pro-european he's unnecessarily playing with fire. In Prime Minister's question time, his presence is weak and again he comes across as worthy but scatter-gun in his approach. In terms of the criteria outlined above, he has failed to craft a distinctive or substantive narrative, he has not displayed the personality or tactical political ability to command attention but his party is not potty, they are just rather ill-defined nowadays.

The real problem he has in his Treasury spokesperson, Vince Cable. Certainly on the personal/ political effectiveness measure, Cable is head and shoulders above his party's leader. When the Lib Dems ditched Menzies Campbell on outrageously ageist grounds for a party that purports to believe in equality, they allowed themselves to be seduced by some really woolly thinking about image and the modern media. Cable himself was seduced by this superficial analysis and failed to stand. Lib Dems failed to ask, who will make the best leader? Cable failed to assert, actually I would make the best leader.

So the party is in a bit of a pickle. There is something delightfully eccentric about Vince Cable though he is, it does need to be said, formidably bright and highly politically astute. Like that animated eccentric, Wallace, there is something endearingly heroic about him. That type of thing tends to attract attention.

Menzies Campbell's sartorial fogeyism might lead one to accuse him of wearing the wrong trousers. Nick Clegg might just be leader but at the wrong time. Without Vince Cable, it would seem that the Lib Dems might just have the wrong leader.

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