Nick Clegg: why I admire Margaret Thatcher

Liberal Democrat leader risks alienating the left of his party in attempt to woo Tory voters.

The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, has expressed his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and aligned himself with traditionally Conservative economic liberalism.

In an interview with the Spectator magazine, he said:

I'm 43 now. I was at university at the height of the Thatcher revolution and I recognise now something I did not at the time: that her victory over a vested interest, the trade unions, was immensely significant.

I don't want to be churlish, that was an immensely important visceral battle for how Britain is governed.

Clegg compared Lib Dem policies on tax to those of the former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson. He also said that he would end the UK's Budget deficit entirely through spending cuts, as opposed to the 80 per cent cuts and 20 per cent tax rises proposed by the Conservatives. "If you want the economy to grow, you must stimulate demand," he said.

There are two ways of interpreting his comments. First, he leaves the way open to support the Tories in the event of a hung parliament. Back in January, he said of the Conservatives: "At the moment, of course, the differences are more striking than the synthetic similarities."

While he is still apparently retaining the position of "equidistance" between the two parties established before Christmas, such pointed courting of a core Conservative perspective appears to be an attempt to halt the widespread assumption that Labour is the more natural ally of the "third party".

Second, this could be an attempt to retain votes in constituencies where voters could swing towards the Tories. The prevailing view is that the Lib Dems are most likely to win seats from disillusioned Labour voters who cannot quite bring themselves to vote Conservative.

Such comments show that Clegg is trying to gain votes from across the political spectrum -- perhaps even from old-school Tories who are unenthused about David Cameron.

The problem with trying to please everyone, of course, is that you can't. The Guardian reports that those on the left of the Lib Dems, who make up a majority, are privately threatening rebellion or resignation if Clegg endorses a Conservative Budget.

As the party goes into its spring conference, Clegg would do well to clarify his message.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.