Hands up who really thought the coalition would last five years. Not me. Those five remarkable days in May 2010, more exciting than the recent TV drama that was based on them, saw politicians and officials move quickly and cleverly to establish a new government. We didn’t know if it could be done, but done it was.
11 days from now we may face an even more complicated and uncertain situation, and this time the absence of a written constitution may be more problematic. But we should feel confident that, no matter what public line parties are taking now, and no matter what the result is, our system will prove flexible and robust enough for a government to be formed.
Nick Clegg and his party deserve some credit for the part they have played in all this. Coalition was a forgotten art. Normal in the rest of Europe, it had been seen as unBritish. It involves compromise. It involves slipperiness. It produces unhappiness both inside and outside political parties.
A voting system that makes life hard for the Liberal Democrats is the partial justification for Clegg’s…nimble behaviour during the coalition negotiations five years ago. You can understand why he and his team may at times have spoken with a forked tongue. He was trying to cut the best deal he could, in a hurry. Of course mistakes were made – sprinkling LibDem ministers throughout government departments was one of them. Better would have been to claim two or three departments as LibDem-only operations. And as for voting with the Conservatives on the tuition fees rise, well…
Still, it has all held together, and that is a significant achievement.
So here we are again, in the run-up to a general election, and once again Clegg’s all-too fluent tongue is running away with him. Conditions are being set – and then immediately adjusted – and apparent ultimata are being laid down. (Some of which are “absurd”, according to the constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor). But in any case we have learned from last time. Memories are fresh. So we know not to take anything Clegg says – anything at all – at face value.
This isn’t just because of the horrendous tuition fees U-turn. That was merely the symbolic issue. What caused so much surprise, and so much political damage to his party, was Clegg’s complete disavowal of almost everything he had said about economic management in the run-up to the last election. To many he seemed to have sacrificed beliefs for power.
Austerity would be a terrible mistake, he had said during the campaign last time around. His (then) eight year old son was capable of seeing that, he said. “You shouldn’t start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing,” Clegg told Reuters just a week before polling day.
The difficulty that Clegg has created for himself is that, by being so fluent, so sincere, so utterly convinced about everything whenever he says it, his changes of heart are all the more striking. I do not think he can get a hearing from the great majority of British voters ever again. He is a drag on his party’s support. And it would have been better for the Lib Dems if he had stood down some time ago.
But he didn’t. And he is still there, dismissing both the big old parties just as he did five years ago. Yet crucially he has not re-adopted Paddy Ashdown’s “equidistance”. The sneers and rejections of Labour are deeper and more intense than those aimed at the Conservatives. There is personal pique and bruised amour propre behind his criticisms of Ed Miliband and the Labour Party, whose attacks on him he has taken to heart. Clegg would be at best a reluctant player, and at worst an obstacle, in any Lib-Lab discussions after May 8th. Those discussions would go a lot better if he were no longer part of the picture.
It has fallen to the voters of Sheffield Hallam to resolve this situation. They should acknowledge Clegg’s achievement in getting the Lib Dems back into government after decades in opposition. They should congratulate him on having served as deputy prime minister for five years. They can thank him for all his efforts and all his hard work.
And then they can vote him out on May 7th.