Clegg has made coalition work. Now he must show he believes in more than hung parliaments

The risk for the Deputy PM is of looking desperate to stay in office at any price.

There is a new puppy in Downing Street – plaintive-eyed, poorly house-trained and, no, it isn’t called Nick Clegg. Days before delivering his Autumn Statement on the economy, George Osborne announced that No 11 had acquired a bichon frise called Lola. She is a gift for the Chancellor’s children from which, no doubt, newspaper diary columnists will also benefit.

So far, the Liberal Democrat lapdog jokes have been few, which is noteworthy given that Clegg was once caricatured as a Tory poodle. The gag doesn’t work any more. The Labour reflex is still to deride the Deputy Prime Minister as a gutless accomplice in Tory wickedness but many opposition MPs are starting to accept what Conservative backbenchers have been complaining about all along: that Clegg’s role is much more than ornamental.

Proving that junior coalition parties wield real power is half a victory for the Lib Dems. It rebuts the old charge that there is no point in voting for them. It doesn’t prove that their contribution has been a good one. Clegg’s strategy relies on people thinking he has thwarted the Conservatives’ beastlier impulses, while imposing kinder – but still affordable – measures of his own.

Neither Labour nor the Tories wants to encourage that interpretation, while their actions reinforce it. David Cameron flatters the Lib Dems by claiming that their signature policy – lifting the income tax threshold for low earners – was a Conservative plan all along, although in 2010 he insisted it was an unaffordable luxury. Meanwhile, Ed Mili­band has accepted that voters see spending restraint as a mark of a party’s economic credibility, which makes it harder to attack Clegg for conceding the same point on day one of the coalition.

The economic case that there was a better, slower pace for cuts is now academic. There was a time when some Lib Dems, most prominently Vince Cable, looked queasy in their commitment to the government’s economic plan but that dissent was crushed at the party’s conference in September. Cable is now the spent cartridge from an anti-austerity shot that was fired into the air.

With growth restored, the debate inside government has shifted to the balance between rewarding voters for enduring years of hardship and reminding them that the job of repairing the public finances is not yet done. Too much pre-election generosity could signal that the crisis is over, which, as the Treasury sees it, amounts to “permission to vote Labour again”. Too heavy an emphasis on constant belt-tightening looks obsessive; militant accountancy trumping compassion.

Here, too, the Lib Dems see an opportunity to position themselves as guardians of the middle way. Clegg will not match Osborne’s pledge to keep cutting through the next parliament until the Budget is in surplus. Nor does he agree with the Chancellor that all future deficit reduction should be achieved without raising taxes. “It can’t be done,” a close ally of the Deputy Prime Minister tells me. “Or rather, it can be done but not if you care about distributional fairness.” The Lib Dems will let the Tories campaign for ever-stingier benefits, while they promise a “mansion tax”.

Not for the first time, Clegg is being helped by the Tories’ self-defeating – and arguably not very conservative – quest for doctrinal purity. Cameron once understood that voters like Budget discipline because it sounds practical, not because they see public expenditure as the thin end of a socialist wedge. These days, he asserts that the state should be leaner “not just now, but permanently”. Austerity, in the Prime Minister’s view, is no longer the response to a financial emergency but the enactment of Tory philosophy.

The Lib Dems think that allows them to pose as the steady-handed surgeons, wielding the knife because the patient needs it, not because it gives them pleasure. This they will contrast with what one cabinet minister describes as Osborne’s “ideological fetish” for cuts.

The question that then arises is why, if Clegg occupies what his strategists call “the liberal centre”, does his party still languish so low in opinion polls? One explanation is that, in a climate of voter contempt for politicians and economic insecurity, the centre has moved to somewhere less classically liberal. Some Tories see Ukip’s success as proof that politics is now about the survival of the toughest – on crime, immigration, Europe, welfare, the colour green; areas where the Lib Dems are liable to look soft. By contrast, Labour detects a renaissance of left populism, marked by the appetite for government to slap down greedy energy companies and raid bankers’ bonuses.

A more prosaic account of Clegg’s poll woes is that standard surveys of national voting intentions ask the wrong question where potential support for his party is concerned. In a close race, what matters is whether, in constituencies where Lib Dem candidates have a chance, people see them as a possible insurance policy against undiluted rule by whichever of the big two parties they like less.

Since Labour and the Conservatives will paint each other as wild-eyed ideologues, the offer to anchor either of them in moderation may not sound too far-fetched. The risk is of looking desperate to stay in office at any price. It is already a problem for the Lib Dems that many people don’t know what they stand for and many who thought they knew before the last election feel betrayed. Clegg’s closest advisers recognise that their “liberal centre” position needs to find expression in values that voters recognise before it becomes a campaign. Without that, it sounds like a plot to thwart other leaders’ ambitions. Left and right will accuse Clegg of obstructing progress by gaming for a hung parliament. He will be cast as the ideological mongrel in the manger, which is a lot better than being written off as Cameron’s dogsbody.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow earlier this year. 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 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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