Why the Lib Dems shouldn't enjoy Tory retoxification too much

Lib Dem ministers are in danger of looking like helpless passengers in a right-wing government.

Political strategists are obsessed with messages that "cut through". They mean the bits that somehow penetrate the consciousness of those people who don’t spend all their time thinking about politics, which is pretty much everyone.

Inconveniently, politicians are often surrounded by other politicians and journalists. They (we) are often as bad as each other at remembering an axiomatic truth about whatever it is they (we) have just said or written: most of the time, no-one cares.

So I do not mean to belittle the Liberal Democrats at their annual conference when I say that most of what passes as "news" – and what animates the chatter in the hotel bars of an evening – will skim off the surface of voters’ minds without leaving a mark.

I’d guess that two things have "cut through" in politics in the last week. First, that Nick Clegg is sorry. It might not be entirely clear what he is sorry for. We know he regrets making a pledge not to raise university tuition fees when he wasn’t remotely sure he could keep it. We know also that he stands by the policy on tuition fees currently in place. He is frustrated because the episode haunts his party, casting him as the emblematic face of broken promises and making it impossible to get any other messages heard. So, after much deliberation, Clegg decided to lob a contrition grenade – hardly a precise weapon, but sufficient, he hopes, to enable him to change the subject.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s aides insist his video apology is not meant to solve an image problem overnight (and plainly it hasn’t). The test of its effectiveness, they say, will only come towards the end of the parliament, when campaigning for a general election starts up. The hope is that, by then, it will seem tired and petty for Clegg’s rivals to attack him as the king of paltry pledges. He’s said he’s sorry – not a lot of politicians do that – what more do you want? It’s a pretty optimistic line, but probably fractionally better than the alternative, which was not apologising.

There are voters who will never forgive Clegg, whatever he says or does. They are lost to the party for the foreseeable future. As for the rest, given that one of the few things everyone knew about the Lib Dem leader is that he broke a promise, it is probably a small net positive that one of the other few things people now know is that he is also sorry. The details don’t matter so much. That’s cut through.

The second thing that has probably registered on most people’s political radars is that a senior Conservative member of the cabinet might or might not have called a police officer "a fucking pleb". Quite how toxic that is for the Cameron project hardly needs spelling out – it underlines the image of the Prime Minister as surrounded by a haughty, wealthy clique that is out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. Worse, it gives the impression that they despise public servants. Whether or not Andrew Mitchell actually said the words attributed to him – and he denies it – is hardly relevant. What counts is that it resonates as the sort of thing a millionaire, ex-banker Tory might be expected to say. Unfair, maybe. But that’s how cut through works.

The strong impression I get from speaking to senior Lib Dems here in Brighton is that they think Cameron ought to have jumped on the whole episode harder and faster. He should, they suggest, have seized it as an opportunity to trumpet his abhorrence at the attitudes attributed to his chief whip, declaring that there is no place for such language in a modern Conservative party. It is probably too late now. Whether Mitchell survives or not, the damage is done.

The Lib Dems aren’t too upset about that. It suits them to be seen as the reasonable, down-to-earth, humble face of the coalition as distinct from the moneyed arrogance of their partners. Predictably, Vince Cable exploited the opportunity to salt the Tory wound in precisely that way by proudly declaring himself to be a "pleb" in his conference speech. One senior Lib Dem, wearing a broad grin, yesterday described the whole Mitchell episode to me as  "dynamite!" A conference stall selling Lib Dem memorabilia sold out of badges announcing "I’m sorry" in the first days of the conference; "pleb" badges quickly replaced them as the must-have accessory.

But the relish with which Lib Dems are enjoying watching the Conservatives re-contaminate their brand does not sit entirely comfortably with the hope that Clegg’s apology will win the party a new audience.

In theory, it should be possible for the two episodes to cut through simultaneously in a way that helps the junior coalition partner. "Behold," the Lib Dems cry, "what we have to put up with! Yes, we made some mistakes, but aren't you glad we're here to rein these beastly Tories in. Imagine what they’d be like without us. The horror! We may not have won every battle - we handled that tuition fees thing all wrong - and yet we are winning some battles too." Then they hope their message of fairer taxes - making the wealthy carry more of the burden of austerity - will be heard and earn them some political credit.

But Tory toxicity is not specific to any policy. It is also contagious. It is a cultural apparatus that surrounds great tranches of the population, especially in the north and Scotland, as well as many younger voters and minority communities (as some glum Tories regretfully concede in private). It is a kind of political inoculation against putting a cross in a certain box come polling day. It is the force that stopped David Cameron from winning a majority. In that sense it is obvious that the Lib Dems should want to nurture the most vicious caricature of their governing allies – and hazardous.

There is ample evidence that the junior coalition party struggles to assert its identity in partnership with a much mightier political beast. Attempts at "differentiation" to overcome that problem have focused largely on policy. But individual policy rarely cuts through – especially when the question of credit and blame for good government in this parliament is largely dependent on the performance of the economy.

There is always the prospect that the Lib Dems are seen to be gathering up only crumbs of policy compensation in exchange for complicity in a largely Conservative project. And in that case, reveling in Tory toxicity is not risk-free.

While there is some disappointment in Brighton that Mitchell’s story has blown the conference out of the headlines, there are still a large number of people of in the party who see the  "pleb" episode as anything other than an open goal – and they’ll keep banging the ball in. It is hard to begrudge them that opportunity at their annual conference, since the occasion is all about celebrating the party’s distinctiveness and independence. But then the business of government must resume and the Tories will not have ignored the pleasure that was taken in their discomfort nor will they forget it. The task of managing coalition effectively, demonstrating that it can be a functional system of government, is as important a prize for the third party as differentiation from the Tories.

The lesson of the past two years is that, when the Conservative party feels wounded and insulted by the Lib Dems, it retaliates by demanding that Cameron ignore Clegg and crush his policy ambitions. The Prime Minister always acquiesces.

So the risk is that gleeful – and from the Tory point of view, gratuitous – punching of a bruised brand accelerates a process that ends up with the Lib Dems getting less out of coalition and looking more like helpless passengers. It is one thing for voters to know that Nick Clegg feels bad about handling one policy wrong. But if the two things they know are that he is sorry and that he doesn’t get his way, what cuts through is the sense that the Lib Dems are apologising for the basic fact of having propped up a Conservative government but not sorry enough to do anything about it.

Vince Cable joked that he was a "mere pleb" in his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

No, Matteo Renzi's referendum isn't Italy's Brexit

Today's Morning Call. 

The European Union saw off one near-death experience yesterday, as Alexander van der Bellen - a Green running under independent colours - saw off Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate, taking 53 per cent to 47 per cent. 

"Turn of the tide: Europeans hail Austrian far-right defeat" is the Guardian's splash, while "Austria says NEIN to far-right" is the Metro's take.

It's a reminder that the relentless march of the far right is not as irresistible as the Le Pens of the world would like to think, and, for the left, a rare brightspot in a year of seemingly unbroken retreat, albeit by a margin that is too close for comfort. 

But on the other side of the Alps, things are not looking so great. Italian voters have rejected Italian PM Matteo Renzi's proposed constitutional reforms in a landslide, resulting in Renzi's resignation. (For a good primer on who Renzi is or rather was, Joji Sakurai wrote a very good one for us a while back, which you can read here)

"Europe in turmoil as Italian PM is defeated" is the Times splash. It has many worrying that Italy made be headed out of the Euro at worst and trigger another financial crisis in the Eurozone at best. Over at the Spectator, James Forsyth suggests that this will make the EU27 reluctant to put the squeeze on the City of London, which is still the Eurozone's clearing centre. Others, meanwhile, are saying it's all the latest in the populist, anti-establishment wave that is politics in 2016.

Are they right?

The reforms - which, among other things, would have ended the Italian system of "perfect bicameralism" whereby the upper house has as much power as the lower, replacing the former with a legislature drawn from the regions in a similar manner to Germany's - were something of a dog's dinner, and although the referendum was forced on Renzi as they were unable to secure a two-thirds majority among legislators, it was a grave error to turn the vote into a referendum on his government. (Bear in mind that Italy is a multi-party democracy where the left's best ever performance netted it 49.8 per cent of the vote, so he was on a hiding to nothing with that approach.)

If there is a commonality in the votes for Brexit, Trump, Hofer, it's in the revenge of the countryside and the small towns against the cities, with the proviso that in Austria, that vote was large enough to hold back the tide). This was very different. Particularly striking: young graduates, so often the losers at the ballot box and pretty much everywhere else post-financial crash, voted against the reforms yesterday.

Nor can a vote that was supported by Silvio Berlusconi, two of the three major parties, as well as Mario Monti, the technocrat appointed effectively on the demands of Italy's creditors, and the Economist be accurately described as a revolt against "the establishment" if that term is to have any meaningful use whatsoever.  

Of course, it could yet lead to a Brexit-style shock. Renzi's Democratic Party could collapse into in-fighting if his departure is permanent - though who knows, he might parlay his graceful concession speech and the likely chaos that is to follow into a triumphant second act - and although his party has a narrow lead in most polls, the Five Star Movement could win a snap election if one occurs.

That raises the nightmare prospect for Brussels of a Eurosceptic in power in a founder-member of the European Union and the single European currency. (That said, it should be noted that Five Star are opponents of the Euro, not of the European Union. The word "Eurosceptic" is perhaps making some anti-Europeans here in the UK overexcited.)

But as Open Europe noted in their very good primer on the referendum before the result that is still very much worth reading, that not only requires Five Star to win an election, but to hold and win not just a referendum on Italy's Euro membership, but to first win a referendum on changing the constitution to allow such a referendum in the first place. (And remember that support for the EU is up in the EU27 following the Brexit vote, too.)

The biggest risk is financial, not political. Renzi had acquired a quasi-mythical status in the eyes of foreign investors, meaning that his departure will make global finance nervous and could result in the rescue deal for Monte Paschi, the world's oldest bank, being mothballed. Although a economic crisis on the scale of the one Italy experienced in 2011 is unlikely, it's not impossible either. And what follows that may justify the comparisons to Trump rather more than Renzi's defeat yesterday.

THE FUTURE'S ORANGE, BUT NOT BRIGHT

Donald Trump, President-Elect of the world's largest superpower, has taken to Twitter to lambast the Chinese government, the world's second-largest superpower, and also a nation which holds both large numbers of nuclear weapons and vast amounts of American debt. 

The cause of the row? Trump became the first President or President-Elect to talk directly to Taiwan's president since 1979, which the Chinese government has taken umbrage to. (China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, not a separate nation.) 

I'LL SEE EU IN COURT

The government's appeal against the High Court's judgement that Parliament, not the Prime Minister, has the ultimate authority to trigger Article 50 begins today. The argument hinges on whether or not triggering Article 50 represents a loss of rights - if, as the High Court accepted it did, then only the legislature can vote to remove rights, rather than have it done through the royal prerogative. Gina Miller, the lead claimant in the case, tells the Guardianthat Supreme Court judges are being unfairly vilified in the right-wing press, who she blames for the death threats against her. 

TANGLED UP IN BLUE

The government is split over whether to continue paying into the European Union after Brexit to secure a decent standard of access to the single market, Oliver Wright reports in the Times. Boris Johnson used his tour of the Sunday shows to signal his opposition to the idea, which has been publicly backed by Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary. Liam Fox is said to oppose any continued payments into the EU. 

PRETTY HUGE DECEPTION

Ukip's new leader, Paul Nuttall, has denied that he claimed to have a PhD from Liverpool Hope University, blaming the claim on a LinkedIn page set up by parties unknown. Andrew Marr also confronted Nuttall with past comments of him calling for the privatization of the NHS in 2011.

ON THE CASEY

Louise Casey, the government's integration tsar, has a new report out in which she says that ethnic segregation in the UK is increasing, and criticizes the government for not doing enough to tackle the problem. The big items: the condition of women in ethnic minority communities, a lack of English language lessons, and recommended an oath of allegiance for all public servants. It's the latter that has the Mail all excited: "Swear oath to live in Britain" is their splash. Anushka Asthana has the full details in the Guardian.

SPECIALIST IN FAILURE (TO PAY TAXES?)

Commons PAC chair Meg Hillier has called for football coach Jose Mourinho to be investigated over reports that he has moved millions offshore to avoid paying tax. (If 1-1 draws are tax deductible, that would explain a great deal.) 

SOUNDS UNNERVINGLY LIKE HOME

Theresa May has told the Radio Times what her Christmas is like: Midnight Mass, sleep, a church service, then lunch (goose) and Doctor Who. She has opened up on the difficulties of growing up in a vicarage (among other things, not getting to open your presents for aaages). 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

It's beginning to feel a bit like Christmas! And to help you on your way, here's Anna's top 10 recommendations for Christmassy soundtracks.

MUST READS

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on how to respond to Trump

Labour has a horrible dilemma on Brexit, I say

Michael Chessum on why aping Ukip on Brexit is the path to Labour defeat

Jason on how politics makes us human

Get Morning Call in your inbox every morning - sign up for free here.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.