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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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.