Clegg pours cold water on Cable’s “progressive majority”

The Lib Dem leader dismisses those who “still dream of a progressive alliance”.

It is somehow typical of Nick Clegg's fate that a speech ostensibly designed to distance himself from David Cameron has already been defined by the phrase "muscular liberalism". After all, it was that same clunky label which Cameron used to describe his approach to multiculturalism in the speech that angered so many in Clegg's party.

Based on the extracts I've seen, the Lib Dem leader's address on "The Coalition and Liberal Politics" will be dominated by the argument that the coaliton is one of "necessity, not of conviction", a temporary alliance rather than an ideological union.

He will say:

There has also been some talk of a so-called centre-right "realignment" since the formation of the current coalition. This is just nonsensical and naive. As I said earlier, this is a coalition of necessity, not of conviction. Realignment consists in practice of two-party political system continued by other means. It is a polite euphemism used by people who want to continue the fight between one gang and the other gang – with us as a temporary recruit to one side. I didn't come into politics to simply replicate the two-party system under the guise of realignment. That's not my definition of pluralism.

Yet the difficulty for Clegg is that, like Cameron, he has frequently given the impression that he is happier sharing power with the Conservatives than he would be governing alone. The foreword to the coalition agreement, for instance, declared:

We have found that a combination of our parties' best ideas and attitudes has produced a programme for government that is more radical and comprehensive than our individual manifestos.

All the same, it's safe to conclude that we won't see a Tory-Lib Dem pact or anything like it at the next general election. But perhaps the most notable thing about Clegg's speech is the scepticism, and even contempt, with which he treats the idea of a "progressive alliance".

"There are still those who dream of a so-called 'progressive alliance'," he will say, "forgetting that Labour had 13 years to make some moves in that direction and never quite seemed to get around to it until, in desperation, they tried to cling to power last year."

That's a none-too-subtle rebuke to those such as Vince Cable and Chris Huhne who boasted that the adoption of the Alternative Vote would finally make the dream of a "progressive majority" a reality. It's also yet more evidence that Clegg is in no mood to forge the roots of a future alliance with Labour.

The Liberal Democrats, he insists, will stand their ground "in the liberal centre of British politics", neither the "anti-Tory party [nor] the anti-Labour pary". Once more, there is an obvious contrast with Cable, who argued that AV would prevent another Conservative century.

It's a bold declaration by Clegg and one, you feel, that won't do his potential challengers on the left any harm.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn may be a Eurosceptic, but he still appeals to the values of many Remainers

He reassures Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-EU areas that things will be OK.

There are two facts about Brexit that everyone seems to forget every few weeks: the first is that Jeremy Corbyn is a Eurosceptic. The second is that the first fact doesn't really matter.

The Labour leader's hostility to the European project is back in the news after he told Andrew Marr that the United Kingdom's membership of the single market was inextricably linked with its EU membership, and added for good measure that the “wholesale importation” of people from Eastern and Central Europe had been used to “destroy” the conditions of workers, particularly in the construction industry.

As George Eaton observes on Twitter, Corbyn voted against the creation of the single market in 1986 (and the Maastricht Treaty, and the Lisbon Treaty, and so on and so on). It would be a bigger shock if the Labour leader weren't advocating for a hard exit from the European Union.

Here's why it doesn't matter: most Labour MPs agree with him. There is not a large number of Labour votes in the House of Commons that would switch from opposing single market membership to supporting it if Corbyn changed his mind. (Perhaps five or so from the frontbenches and the same again on the backbenches.)

There is a way that Corbyn matters: in reassuring Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-Remain areas that things will be OK. Imagine for a moment the reaction among the liberal left if, say, Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock talked about the “wholesale importation” of people or claimed that single market membership and EU membership were one and the same. Labour MPs in big cities and university towns would be a lot more nervous about bleeding votes to the Greens or the Liberal Democrats were they not led by a man who for all his longstanding Euroscepticism appeals to the values of so many Remain voters.

Corbyn matters because he provides electoral insurance against a position that Labour MPs are minded to follow anyway. And that, far more than the Labour leader's view on the Lisbon Treaty, is why securing a parliamentary majority for a soft exit from the European Union is so hard. 

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