Clegg’s banker bashing leaves him dangerously exposed

The Lib Dem leader was foolish to declare he wanted to “wring” the bankers’ necks.

If there is a non-aggression pact between the banks and the government, someone forgot to tell Nick Clegg. In an interview with BBC Radio Sheffield earlier today, the Lib Dem leader said of the denizens of the Square Mile, "I want to wring the neck of these wretched people." It's a rather graphic example of his pledge to use a "different language" from David Cameron and an obvious sop to his party's grass roots.

But the remarks also leave him dangerously exposed. Clegg's insistence that he wants to "wring" the bankers' necks invites an obvious response: why haven't you, then? The failure of Project Merlin to take effective action on bonuses and lending levels means that he sounds like an impotent opposition politician.

Should the coalition fail to prevent another bumper round of bonuses in 2012 (as it undoubtedly will), Clegg's words will be played back to him by every hostile journalist and Labour MP in the land. Like his pledge to vote against higher tuition fees and his description of the Alternative Vote as a "miserable little compromise", this is one line that Clegg's political opponents will never tire of recycling.

His comments also remind us of the divisions between the Lib Dems and the Tories on the banks. The Deputy PM has aligned himself with Vince Cable, who recently condemned large bonuses as "offensive" and said the banks needed "fundamental surgery". Once the Vickers commission on banking reports to George Osborne, the coalition will need to decide whether to split retail and investment banking.

Cable and Clegg are convinced of the need for reform, but many Tories remain sceptical at best. Should the Lib Dems fail to win the argument, Clegg will once again be accused of talking tough but acting weak.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.