Nick Clegg has started the New Year as he means to go on – further tying himself and his hapless Party to the fortunes of George Osborne’s failed economics and torpedoing his own differentiation strategy. His article in yesterdays’ Times (£) set out how the coalition plan to target Labour over the coming year (clue: the same way they’ve been doing over the last year – with the increasingly unimaginative “What would Labour cut?” question which I have addressed elsewhere.)
It is getting harder and harder not to believe that Nick Clegg is just an idiot. I don’t want to believe that. I find it hard that anyone can achieve what he has personally and still be quite such an idiot. Perhaps Clegg is the ultimate example of how unmeritocratic our society really is. All that education, all those connections and yet, in the end, here he is boxed into a corner made of his own idiocy, and every move he makes is so obviously wrong. Nick Clegg speaks five languages. He can probably write clichés like “We must all pay the piper in the end” in Dutch, German, Spanish and French. But still doesn’t seem to have learned how to say “no”!
His piece in the Times is everything the differentiation strategy was supposed to reverse. It ties the Lib Dems so firmly to the mast of Osborne’s failing economic strategy that the “lines to take” have clearly come from the Treasury. It’s the kind of full-throated defence of the Government’s strategy that will make it impossible for Clegg to lead a Lib Dem party that would have any ability to change its mind on these issues post-election. They become further and further boxed into the Conservatives corner, with a Party who increasingly resent their very presence.
Clegg litters the article with supposed achievements. The Government’s oft repeated claim of paying of around a quarter of the deficit gets a look in despite the fact that this is contested. The one that caught my eye was the claim that they were “Boosting house building”. Nick, Mate, when your own Think Tank allies are producing reports saying you could preside over the lowest level of house building since the 1920s then it’s time to quietly put those claims away. It wasn’t needed and it makes you look – well – like an idiot.
But, as Obi Wan Kenobe almost said: Who’s the more foolish? The fool, or the Party that follows him? Nick Clegg isn’t alone in his idiocy. He has a well-oiled machine stood right beside him ready to amplify his every mistake. The Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party are the political equivalent of Jonestown: wrongly convinced of their moral superiority, wrongly convinced of their revolutionary place in history and awaiting a massacre.
At the moment, David Cameron is in more danger of being defenestrated than Nick Clegg. And while it’s right that the Lib Dems shouldn’t move too quickly to rid themselves of Clegg, that only remains true if they can reign him in a bit and stop him doing so much damage to their electoral prospects, and their much-vaunted but little displayed equidistance and differentiation. No wonder even the Soft Left of Labour have hardened in their tribalism. It is all too easy to say to the Lib Dems “We’ll have your voters, not your leaders” as they keep shoving them towards us.
I can’t work out why Nick Clegg’s mistakes irk me as much as they do. They are nothing but a gift for Labour. As a true Partisan, I delight in that. But in the meantime, Clegg keeps failing. And as he does so, so does any chance to actually stop some of the damage of the Coalition. The Lib Dems aren’t going to go into 2015 with a triumph under their belts. Their Tory buddies have seen to that. They won’t have reformed voting or abolished the House of Lords. But equally they won’t be able to really point to any part of the nastier parts of coalition policy and say “we stopped that”. On the NHS, Welfare reform even economic policy, the Lib Dem tinkering around the edges has been little more than putting a doily on the turd a vandal took in the living room. It has changed nothing.
When the historians come to write of this time in Government, the missed opportunities squandered by a Party who had been out of power for so long will come to be seen as one of the most stunning political mistakes of this age. Nick Clegg can attack Labour “carping” all he wants – but he’s a young man who will have to live with his failures for a very long time. Carping will be the least of his worries.