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

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”