Nick Clegg is perilously short of friends – but his enemies seem determined to help him

Lib Dem strategists are brimming with gratitude to the two big parties for making single-party government seem an unattractive proposition.

It is a measure of how bad things once looked for the Liberal Democrats that progress for them consists of having a leader who is disliked only as much as every other politician.
 
Nick Clegg is no matinee idol but neither is he the object of mass derision. At the peak of his ignominy, immediately after reneging on a pledge not to raise university fees, the Lib Dem leader’s villain status transcended political animus. He entered the cultural lexicon as a byword for dishonour.
 
Most of Westminster deemed the wound fatal. Yet he will address his party’s annual conference as a man determined still to be in government after the next general election – and with reasons to think it possible. There is growing confidence in Clegg’s inner circle that parliament will stay hung after 2015. Their calculation is that Labour can mobilise enough anti-Tory energy to obstruct David Cameron but not enough enthusiasm for Ed Miliband to sweep to victory.
 
Every election campaign is a culture war between challengers pledging change and incumbents offering more of the same. Clegg is persuaded that, for the time being, grudging continuity has the edge. One lesson he has drawn from recent history is that risk-averse British electorates need exceptional reasons to evict serving governments – prolonged periods of abject failure (the Tories in the run-up to 1997), or colossal crises (the great economic bust that did for Labour in 2010). In the past 35 years, voters have handed power to the opposition only three times. As a senior Lib Dem adviser puts it: “More of the same usually wins in Britain.”
 
The Lib Dems cannot be seen to have preferences for post-election scenarios. Their line is to await the verdict of the electorate and follow the parliamentary arithmetic towards any future coalition. But in private conversations Clegg’s allies exude prejudice in favour of renewing the existing partnership with Cameron. The roseate glow of coalition’s early days has passed but so has the rancour stirred by battles over constitutional reform, leaving a workaday habit of doing business. By contrast, top Lib Dems discuss with foreboding the prospect of dealing with a Prime Minister Miliband.
 
Clegg is said by friends to have been unimpressed by the indecision he witnessed during his closest collaboration to date with the Labour leader – the negotiations over a royal charter for press regulation. Unflatteringly, comparisons are made with Cameron, with whom he can at least disagree quickly, cut a deal and move on.
 
That pro-Tory bias runs against the tide of opinion among ordinary Lib Dem members, many of whom anticipate a 2015 deal with Labour. There is deep concern that serving another term as adjuncts to the Tories would signal an irreversible centre-right alliance. It would be wrong to mistake resistance to that idea for ideological comradeship with Miliband. The Lib Dems gifted a parcel of their voters to the opposition the second they signed up to coalition. That leaves Clegg’s army numerically diminished but more resolute in its independent identity.
 
The boundary with Labour is less porous than believers in a “progressive coalition” think it ought to be. A handful of councillors have swapped sides but there have been no high-profile defections. The Lib Dems who squirm on the government benches say they feel no magnetic pull from the other side of the chamber, when Labour seems only to half-oppose benefit cuts or immigration crackdowns. “The things that make us angry with our own party are things that Labour are useless on,” says one disillusioned MP.
 
That doesn’t mean Clegg will have an easy conference.
 
There is deep unease in the grass-roots party. An army of councillors that it took decades to amass has been whittled away in local election routs. The opinion polls look permanently grim. The party’s finances are a disaster. In parliament there is impatience with the whips’ insistence on discipline for its own sake. The demand to act at all times like a serious party of government, not a flaky protest group, is losing currency – especially when Tory backbenchers treat the coalition agenda as an à la carte menu of things to back or not back, according to taste.
 
Few Lib Dems expect as savage a cull of MPs in 2015 as the opinion polls seem to forebode. The party will fight a defensive ground campaign, pooling activists in support of incumbent MPs.
 
Private polling by Clegg’s office shows that the main hurdle for voters who would consider backing the Lib Dems is a fear of accidentally lubricating either a Cameron or Miliband victory. That isn’t a great sign, because it shows how vulnerable Clegg is to being squeezed out of a campaign in which his rivals will both insist the nation faces a binary choice. The upside is that it creates fertile terrain for tactical voting.
 
The challenge for the Lib Dems is to turn that negative anxiety about who might end up in Downing Street into a positive – confidence that whoever it is can be moderated by coalition. It is what one Clegg aide calls “the leash on the dog question”.
 
Lib Dem strategists are brimming with gratitude to the two big parties for making single-party government seem an unattractive proposition. Between the vagueness of Miliband’s offer and the spectre of a Cameron administration taking dictation from rampant Tory backbenchers, the Lib Dems hope to present themselves as a hedge against either side winning outright. It is the opposite of the old “wasted vote” charge. Not the most ambitious pitch, but part of the Lib Dems’ graduation to being a grown-up party means abandoning the pretence that they campaign for anything grander than a hung parliament and junior membership of a coalition.
 
As a small party, the Lib Dems will go into the next election looking perilously short of friends. Their consolation is to have unintentionally helpful foes.
Nick Clegg arrives to speak at the Mace Montessori nursery on September 2, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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