NHS reforms offer still more pain, even less gain for the Lib Dems

Clegg should have learnt from tuition fees that complex arguments can't sell hated reforms and that

Nick Clegg will urge the Liberal Democrats to "tear off the rear view mirror" in a rally to open the party's spring conference in Gateshead this evening. It is a curious metaphor that is meant to signal optimism and determination - looking only at the governing road ahead, not nervously behind at the hard path already travelled. It could also be interpreted as denial.

The message will be reinforced by party chair Tim Farron, whose speech is previewed in a Guardian op-ed this morning. He invites Lib Dems - instructs them even - to stop feeling guilty about the compromises that have been made for the sake of coalition. Farron describes power as "an occupational hazard" for serious political parties and one from which the Lib Dems ought not shy away.

This coordinated message is meant to signal the fact that, as one strategist put it to me recently, "the party is coming out of its defensive crouch." There is cautious confidence that this May's local elections will not be a repeat of last year's massacre. Campaign resources are being more strategically focused; recent council by-election wins give grounds for optimism.

Meanwhile, Lib Dem MPs, most activists and Clegg himself are all fed up with the expectation that they ought to be apologising for the very fact of being in a coalition when, from their point of view, that is an epic achievement. What, after all, would have been the point of all those years in opposition if the chance to enact party policy had been turned down? The challenge, according to this analysis, is to explain to a sceptical and inattentive public quite how much Lib Dem policy is actually being introduced and what a triumph this is, making the country fairer; or fairer, at least, than it would have been had the Tories been able to rule unrestrained.

And there lies the biggest problem. Partly by necessity, partly through ill-judgement, the Lib Dems have ended up winning many little things, while the Conservatives have won very big things. The two defining issues of this parliament could well end up being George Osborne's economic choice to press ahead with austerity at an accelerated pace and David Cameron's decision to forge ahead with unpopular and poorly understood NHS reforms. Labour are convinced the public will turn against both. (The evidence only supports that assertion with regard to the health service.) Either way, the Lib Dem role is cast firmly as accomplice, which is the classic trap for junior coalition partners - maximum pain if it goes wrong; minimum credit if it works. The "pupil premium" and tweaks to the House of Lords won't alter that equation much.

Lib Dems gathering in Gateshead today know that much, which is why they are agitated about the Health and Social Care Bill. This time last year, a rebellious mood at the party's spring conference helped spur Clegg into demanding a "pause" in the legislative process to reconsider the whole thing. There is a growing sense in the party that the reforms have not changed enough (or are not judged to be anything other than trouble by the public) to justify endorsement. Would not the Lib Dems be able to signal their true worth in government by vetoing the measure altogether? Might they not then be able to campaign on a claim to have saved the NHS? To that end there is a motion in the works - yet to be scheduled for debate - calling for the health reforms to be scrapped.

Senior Lib Dems (and a large number of Tories, including some close to Downing Street) wish Clegg had killed the bill last year. Instead, the reforms have been mangled enough by constant amendment to persuade the public that the whole thing is a shambles, but not enough to convince anyone that the underlying intent has been changed. This is, without doubt, a disaster for the government.

David Cameron hopes that, once the furore around the actual legislation is out of the way, a process of explanation, education and reassurance can reconcile people to the changes. The one person in politics best equipped to know how wrong that assumption is should be Nick Clegg. It is exactly the technique he tried after his party's u-turn on tuition fees. (One reason to hold on to that rear view mirror for a while, perhaps.) He explained over and over again how the new system was, in fact, fairer than the old one, how it was the best option available, how the underlying principle that had led him to make his anti-fees pledge in opposition was kind of honoured by measures being taken to mitigate ... blah, blah. No matter.

A visceral sense of betrayal created an emotional barrier that no rational argument could penetrate. There is a danger of the same happening with the NHS. Once people decide that Cameron and co. have reneged on a fundamental pledge to protect the health service, they aren't going to be swayed by a claim that cuts and chaos are a different kind of protection - special long-term protection that requires pain in the short-term. Anger is rarely appeased with a graph. And, of course, when that happens, Clegg's amendments, adjustments and moderations will be worth nothing. No one thanks the midwife at the birth of a monster.

This problem expresses a wider strategic challenge for the Lib Dems - and for Clegg in particular. The party is having to work out how to make coalition government work and educate voters about what that means at the same time. It also has the misfortune to be allied with the Tories, who aggravate a unique kind of hostility among a section of the population whose votes Clegg needs. That distaste is deep-rooted and cultural; it transcends day-to-day politics. This tribal barrier is not unique to British politics, but it is especially pronounced by European standards. Clegg's sense of how coalition ought to be part of the Westminster repertoire is derived, in part, from his experience of the continent.

He is taking the Lib Dems on a transition from being one kind of party to something completely different. He took over something distinctly British, mildly eccentric, contrarian, and comfortable in opposition and is turning it into a technocratic, professional party of coalition. It is like remodelling the Campaign for Real Ale as McKinsey. Tricky.

The most compelling argument for what Clegg is trying to do (leaving aside how effectively he is managing it) is that there is no alternative. A party that refuses the opportunity to govern forfeits the right to be taken seriously. But given the Lib Dems' poll ratings, the grass roots could be forgiven for wondering how much more pain they have to endure before the political dividends of the transformation are felt. On this journey it isn't the rear view mirror Clegg has to worry about, it's everyone in the back chanting "are we nearly there yet?"

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496