Clegg has gambled his party's future on another hung parliament

His decision to remake the Lib Dems as a centrist "party of government", rather than a centre-left outfit, could prove ruinous if the next election doesn't produce the right result.

This was the speech that many thought Nick Clegg would never deliver. Back in 2010, when millions of Lib Dem voters defected en masse to Labour, Westminster sages predicted that by 2013 he would be in retreat from British politics, preparing for a return to Brussels as the UK's new EU commissioner. But today Clegg stood before his party as a politician reborn, buoyed by the Eastleigh by-election, the economic recovery and the prospect of another hung parliament.

Of the six conference speeches Clegg has given as leader, this was by some distance the best. It was by turns witty, moving and self-deprecating. In a clarion call to Labour supporters in Tory-Lib Dem marginals to come home to his party, Clegg reminded us just how much worse a majority Conservative government would have been: "Inheritance tax cuts for millionaires - no. Bringing back O’ levels and a two-tier education system - no. Profit-making in schools – no. New childcare ratios – no. Firing workers at will, without any reasons given – no, absolutely not. Regional pay penalising public sector workers in the north - no. Scrapping housing benefit for young people – no. No to ditching the Human Rights Act. No to weakening the protections in the Equalities Act. No to closing down the debate on Trident." He pointed out that it was David Cameron who told him during the 2010 leaders' debate that the country couldn't afford a personal tax allowance of £10,000 and smartly took ownership of equal marriage, the coalition's greatest achievement and one that would have been impossible without Lib Dem support. And he reaffirmed his party's status as the surest defenders of civil liberties, the greatest champions of Europe and the most committed environmentalists.

The announcement of free school meals for all infant pupils was a masterstroke, drawing some of the sting from Labour's "cost of living" attack and cheering his party's universalist wing. How foolish of the Tories to press ahead with their discriminatory tax breaks for marriage, giving the lie to their claim that they wish to support all and any "hardworking families".

But there were two problems with Clegg's speech that he evaded, rather than confronted. The first, if we are entering a new era of hung politics, is the question of whether the Lib Dems view Labour or the Tories as their natural coalition partner. Clegg sought to present himself as agnostic between the two but the polls repeatedly show that it is the former that his party's activists and voters are drawn towards. In the case of Clegg, the reverse is the case. Today, he declared that "I don’t look at Ed Miliband and David Cameron and ask myself who I’d be most comfortable with, as if I was buying a new sofa." But his staff routinely brief that they crave a renewal of vows with Cameron. If the next election results in another hung parliament but both Labour and the Tories win enough seats to form a majority government with Lib Dem support his party risks a damaging schism. Jeremy Browne and David Laws will look towards Cameron, Vince Cable and Tim Farron to Miliband.

The second problem is that Clegg's positioning of the Lib Dems as a "party of government" is premised on the belief that another hung parliament is likely in 2015. It certainly appears more probable than it did last year, but recall that while even a seven-point lead wasn't enough for the Tories to secure a majority, a lead of just one-point will be enough for Labour. Clegg confidently ended: "Our place is in Government again." But if Miliband leads Labour into government after 2015, he will be left as the head of a marginalised party, bereft of members and seats (even now, the Lib Dems will struggle to hold onto more than 30), and discredited for a generation by collusion with the party that was for so long its greatest foe.

The Lib Dems' new raison d'être is to serve as a centrist party that takes office in order to ameliorate the extremes of Labour and the Tories. To this end, Clegg has been prepared to trade principle for power. For every one of the Tory policies that he prevented, one can name others that he enabled: the immigration cap, NHS privatisation, £9,000 tuition fees, the VAT rise, the abolition of the 50p tax rate, the benefit cap and the bedroom tax. In the trade-off between principle and power, the danger is that Lib Dems will lose both.

Nick Clegg delivers his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser