After Labour's leftwards lurch, the Lib Dems have the centre all to themselves

With Labour preaching socialism and the Tories chasing after UKIP, Clegg will be rather pleased with how things have turned out.

Apparently we in the Lib Dems are meant to have had a fit of the vapours over the re-emergence of Red Ed. James Forsyth tells us that "there’s genuine concern in Clegg’s circle about the contents and policy implications of Miliband’s speech. After yesterday, it is even harder to see how a Clegg Miliband coalition would work."

And I’m sure he’s not making that up. I suspect Nick does go a little weak at the knees at the thought of being the filling in an Ed Miliband and Linda Jack sandwich.

But actually Nick will probably be rather pleased about the way things have panned out in Brighton. Sure, the inner circle may be a little horrified at the prospect of coalition negotiations with a Labour leader reviving the 1983 manifesto, but at least Labour have now clearly tacked left. They may not have meant to – 'One Nation' is still being kicked about - but in the context of Labour’s new strategic approach, it’s a dead duck. They have nailed their colours firmly to the socialist mast.

Meanwhile, far from being tempted to chase after them, the Tories seem destined to tack in the other direction as they look to take the ground back from UKIP. How else to explain George Osborne's decision to march off to Brussels to defend capitalist predators just as Miliband is taking them on. 'Ed’s trying to fix the market, George is trying to free it' will be their cry around the shires.

And where does that leave Nick? Well, firstly, in the centre ground that he has promised to fight for since the last election. And what’s more, he finds the Lib Dems now have it all to themselves.

Secondly, Labour knows full well that to retain 2010 Lib Dem voters, it needs Lib Dem-friendly policies – like a mansion tax, a living wage, free childcare, decarbonisation targets. Why, Lib Dem activists even voted to condemn the Bedroom Tax last week. Plenty of common ground there for any coalition negotiations.

And thirdly, if either Labour or the Tories genuinely want to deliver on any of their more radical and eye-catching policies, they’re going to have to come up with some significant quid pro quos for the Lib Dems – like Lords reform. Otherwise they may find they can’t deliver on some high profile pledges, which, from experience, doesn’t play well with the average voter.

So it’s all fallen into place rather nicely. Almost like it was planned that way. It’s probably why they call him Mystic Clegg.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit