Will Nick Clegg be sacrificed to save his party from oblivion?

Many Liberal Democrats are agitating against their leader behind the scenes. How willing is he to be their sacrificial lamb?

Nick Clegg the Martyr by Chris Price/Début Art
Nick Clegg is hemmed in by links to the Conservatives. Illustration: Chris Price/Début Art

The owners of Sheffield’s steel mills shrewdly built their homes among the shallow hills to the west of the city. Clean air sweeping in from the southern Pennines preserved the captains of South Yorkshire industry from the choking smelter fumes that settled on the workers’ homes in the valley. The Victorian suburb of Hallam is still the grandest quarter of Sheffield. Portly grey-brown brick houses look out through imperious sash windows on to quiet streets. The more magisterial villas of the old industrial magnates hide behind stone walls, coniferous borders and iron gates. There is still some steel money in the area, but the residents of Hallam are now just as likely to be professors at Sheffield’s two universities or consultants from the city’s hospitals.

Their local MP is Nick Clegg and his seat, held by a majority of over 15,000, ought to be safe. Hallam has some of the wealthiest, healthiest and best-educated wards in the country. It rivals leafy London suburbs in measures of affluence and well-being, and was a solidly Tory area for most of the 20th century. “It’s an anomaly that it’s not a Conservative seat,” says Andrew Gamble, professor of politics at Cambridge and a former director of research on political economy at Sheffield. “It’s a sign of the collapse of Conservative support in northern cities.”

The Liberal Democrats seized Hallam in the 1997 election, when most of the Tories’ urban bastions fell. They dug in as Sheffield’s second party, the natural alternative when Labour was in power, taking control of the council in 1999. There has been much jostling for primacy, and the city has been run by Labour since 2011.

On Hallam’s rain-lashed streets on a sullen June afternoon, the mood is ill-disposed to the incumbent MP. James, a 27-year-old waiter at an upmarket bistro, lives on the less smart, eastern edge of the constituency. In 2010, he was swept up in Cleggmania – the short national surge of enthusiasm for the least familiar candidate in the first live televised pre-election leaders’ debate. “There was that time when it seemed everyone was voting Lib Dem.” James was motivated by the desire to avoid a Tory government. “But then we got one.”

A different disappointment is voiced by Paula, a charity volunteer in her late forties and a member of the local branch of the Women’s Institute. “We thought [Clegg] was normal, but he’s just like the rest of them, just out for himself.” Normality is the quality Paula most craves but least expects to find in a candidate. She defines it as “went to a normal school; uses the NHS”. Dave, mid-thirties, loading up on groceries at the local Spa, expresses the point more bluntly: “He’s a bit of a tart, isn’t he? I don’t really know about his policies. He’s disappeared into a void of nothing.”

It is hard to find anyone on the streets of Hallam who will defend Clegg, though it is just as hard to find people who will speak highly of his rivals. In Westminster there is sometimes speculation about the seat changing hands. The prospect of such a humiliation, it is said, would prompt Clegg to stand down before an election. Labour’s poll share across Sheffield will be bolstered by a large population of students nursing resentment over tuition fees, but it is the Tories who came second in Hallam. In the local elections in May this year, the Lib Dems held all five council seats in the constituency and took 39 per cent of the overall vote, 16 points ahead of Labour and 22 ahead of the Conservatives. It would take a thorough shuffle of the electoral deck, combined with unusual permutations of tactical voting, to engineer a Lib Dem decapitation at the next general election.

No one is ruling it out. The Lib Dems’ poll ratings have settled into a dismal groove. Clegg is the least liked of the leaders of the three main parties but also one of the most widely recognised politicians in the country. He is much better known than his party, not in a good way. He has something like the minor celebrity status of a reality TV  casualty. A Lib Dem insider sums up the typical focus group response to Clegg as: “That guy who screwed the students, er, wasn’t he once on Celebrity Big Bro­ther?” Party strategists worry that their leader’s name has entered popular culture as a byword for slipperiness.

Labour and Tory MPs gloat in private that Clegg cannot possibly fight the next electionas Lib Dem leader. His image, they say, is too tainted; there is no way the party will excite an audience under such compromised leadership. It would be easy to dismiss this as the mischievous prattle of enemies, yet even Liberal Democrats increasingly speculate along the same lines. “It is the topic that people talk about most in the party,” says a prominent activist. “But it’s a whispered conversation because people find the whole thing a bit difficult.”

A recent commentary by Peter Kellner, president of the polling firm YouGov, was much circulated among members of the party. Kellner professed to admire Clegg but concluded that the Deputy Prime Minister might have to lay down his career in domestic politics for the sake of his party. “If they fight the next election with Clegg as their leader, I can’t see many anti-Tories who voted Lib Dem last time returning to the fold,” Kellner wrote on his blog. “They will need a new leader whom voters regard as more even-handed.”

The souring of Clegg’s image is partly a function of how hard it still is for the Tories to appeal beyond their core vote. When the coalition began, the Lib Dems knew there were areas of the country where Tories are reviled. Mistrust of David Cameron’s party cost him a majority. Clegg underestimated how contagious the toxin would be.

With Labour heading into opposition, the Lib Dems were never likely to retain the allegiance of left-leaning protest voters. What made the exodus so damaging was the way noisy cries of betrayal found  precise resonance in one of the worst-performed policy manoeuvres of recent times. The abandonment of the party’s pre-election pledge to oppose higher university fees was not intrinsically wicked. Such things happen in politics. The catastrophe lay in its presentation, so lacking in humility it seemed like boasting.

To Clegg’s enduring fury, that act, which he saw as a sacrifice for coalition’s sake, was then used against him during the Conservatives’ campaign for a No vote in the referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote (AV) for Westminster elections. “Their campaign was AV equals coalition equals Clegg equals broken promises,” says a senior Lib Dem strategist. “It was a dangerous cocktail.”

Since then, the Lib Dems have struggled to make the case that coalition is a desirable innovation. It might be recognised as necessary to provide stability in uncertain economic times. Predictions that it would collapse early were wrong. Opinion polls show that the arrangement is preferred to undiluted Tory government by some voters – and in some crucial marginal constituencies. But coalition has failed the moral hygiene test. It was not a deep clean for democracy after the parliamentary expenses scandal. Nor has it delivered “the new politics” of Clegg’s campaign rhetoric that seemed momentarily to be encapsulated in the rose-scented bonhomie between the new Prime Minister and his deputy in the Downing Street garden the morning after their alliance was sealed in May 2010.

Given that Clegg was the vehicle for inflated expectations of a different way of doing things, it is natural he should become the scapegoat when things turn out to be done as they always have been. He is the emblem of dismay at the gap between what politicians promise and what they deliver. As a result, the act of compromise, without which two-party government is impossible, reinforces the Lib Dems’ reputation for weakness and cynicism. It is a terrible fix – the device that defines coalition has become, in Clegg’s hands, also the practice that debases it.

Yet when Lib Dems aggressively pursue own-label policies within government – the “differentiation” strategy that is meant to safeguard their identity – they risk presenting coalition as an unproductive tug of war.

Differentiation is not delivering much in the way of public acclaim for the party. Lib Dems authored the most popular policy in this year’s Budget: the raising of the income-tax threshold for the lowest earners. That does not stop the Tories citing it with proprietary airs when faced with accusations that they tilt towards the wealthy. Nor has it saved Clegg’s party from collateral damage in the wider media onslaught over what has achieved folkloric status as one of the most disorderly budgets ever. There isn’t much advantage in playing the innocent deputy to a shambles.

Besides, the broad outline of politics for the duration of this parliament has been set in line with the judgements of a Conservative chancellor. There might be opportunities for the Lib Dems to add nuance and to embellish, but drastic deviation from George Osborne’s prescriptions would fatally sabotage the coalition. Having accepted the logic that unity on fiscal policy is a prerequisite for investor confidence, Clegg cannot disagree with the Tories on the pace of austerity (and all other conversations are contingent to that timetable) without repudiating the decision to go into government in the first place.

The great dilemma that the Lib Dems face is how to detach themselves from coalition in advance of an election without relinquishing credit for things achieved in government. Under Clegg’s leadership, the party has undergone a transition from a party of perpetual protest to one that is comfortable with power. A little too comfortable, perhaps.

The question that then arises is whether the poison is sufficiently concentrated in Clegg that his body might be jettisoned and something of the legacy in office preserved. Could a human sacrifice redeem the record?

A survey by the Lib Dem Voice website recently found that a third of members think Clegg should stand down before an election. Many in the party, including some very close to the leader, think that was a conservative estimate. (The question was worded in such a way as to invite rejection of the proposition.) And yet there is no rebellion brewing in the ranks, for a number of reasons. Above all there is the fear attending any regicide that chaos would ensue.

Ideological divisions between the party’s social-democratic and more classically liberal wings have been contained by the discipline required of government. In that respect, the Lib Dems have been better behaved than the Tories, whose right flank leaks anti-Cameron bile. That is because the first taste of power was a reward in itself for the junior coalition party, while the absence of a majority was a humiliation for the Conservatives. It is the Lib Dem left that might have been expected to baulk at partnership with the Tories but its resolve has been stiffened by the volleys of spite that Labour has hurled non-stop since the first day of the coalition.

At the same time, there is recognition throughout the party of the need to display inviolate unity on two fronts: the economy and the goal of proving that coalition is a viable form of government. Without that second ambition, the party is finished. Those close to Clegg emphasise the collective nature of the original decision to accept Tory terms. The deal had to pass a “triple-lock” of multiple ratifications by MPs and federal party committees. This is held up as proof of the Lib Dem commitment to democratic principle. More important, from Clegg’s point of view, it makes the whole Lib Dem hierarchy complicit in the partnership with Cameron. As one strategist puts it: “Our hands are all steeped in the same blood.”

Another disincentive to unseating Clegg is the absence of an obvious successor. The next leader will have to meet two contradictory requirements: breaking from the least popular aspects of coalition and sustaining the idea that the party is a dependable partner for government. Anyone now serving in cabinet – the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, and the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, are usually cited as potential candidates – would be no less tainted by association with the Tories than Clegg. The alternative would be to hand the leadership to someone who has not taken the ministerial shilling – and on that side of the discussion the first name to come up is usually Tim Farron, the party president. Farron has a solid base of support on the Lib Dem left. He is also the highest-ranking figure in the party who openly discusses rupture from the Tories and scorns their policies. Last September he declared, with apparent relish, that the coalition would “inevitably end in divorce”. That is self-evidently true, but it is impolitic to advertise it. Installing as leader someone so obviously itchy around Conservatives would look like giving up on government – the party reaching for the soothing lotion of opposition again.

Any leadership contest would become a gruesome referendum on whether or not the Lib Dems can live with their own legacy. It will serve anyone with ambitions to lead the party to wait for  unambiguous confirmation that Clegg’s time is up before starting to plot. When the incumbent is unpopular there can be no doubt who is to blame for failure. A premature usurpation could simply spread the blame around. No one wants to be the one who divided the party and Westminster knife-wielders rarely inherit the crown. Besides, the Lib Dems are suffering from knifing fatigue after the despatch of two leaders in rapid succession, Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell in 2006 and 2007. Tory and Labour MPs see those episodes as proof of Lib Dem bloodthirstiness; the party prefers to see them as part of a dark period in history not to be revisited.

The strongest argument for keeping Clegg, and one that seems for the time being to hold sway in the party, is that toppling the leader could achieve the exact opposite of what would be intended. The most damaging charge levelled against the Lib Dems is that they are cynical power-seekers who will stop at nothing to cling on to a few ministerial boxes. It is hard to see how that story is contradicted by the spectacle of MPs obediently following behind their leader, voting with him, not questioning his judgement publicly or resigning in outrage, and only later, as it becomes clear that he is a spent force and defeat looms, turning on him. As one Clegg loyalist says: “Our best hope at the next election is to be able to say we stuck together in difficult times. That includes sticking by the leader.”

A fashionable idea doing the rounds – I have heard it posited in identical terms by Conservative ministers and their Labour shadows – is that Clegg would stand down as the party’s leader around the time of its 2014 autumn conference but continue to serve as Deputy Prime Minister. It is a neat device that crumbles on inspection. How would a new leader carve out a distinct platform without trashing the work still being done by his predecessor in government?

Clegg’s allies recoil at the mere mention of his departure. “He’s been doing a fantastic job as Deputy PM and as party leader,” says Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Clegg’s most loyal lieutenant in cabinet. “He will continue into the election and into the next parliament. Have no doubt about that.” Clegg is said to be mystified by speculation about his quitting. “He would see it as a general deserting his post,” says a friend.

Those feelings might change. They might also become irrelevant if there is still no improvement in the poll ratings as the parties go past the mid-point of the parliament this year. There is a mental shift that takes place among nervous MPs once the next election is nearer than the last. Clegg still has a dedicated base in the Lib Dems and there is hope that, given more time, he might be rehabilitated. Some of his
advisers are counselling a conspicuous show of contrition for past mistakes, yet even Clegg’s praetorian guard in the Deputy PM’s office acknowledge that another battering in local elections next May could provoke mutiny.

Cameron can hardly afford to lose a governing partner who, for the most part, has been straightforward and effective. Fear of seeing him slain and replaced by someone more hostile is an incentive for Cameron to accommodate Lib Dem demands. That, in turn, provokes insubordination in his own party.

A parallel calculation is made on the opposition side. The prospect of another hung parliament urges Labour to make peace with the Lib Dems; the idea of hastening Clegg’s defenestration incites them to war. Ed Miliband has not irreversibly ruled out a governing partnership with the Lib Dems under their current leadership but he would plainly prefer to conduct coalition talks with someone else.

One reason why Labour and Tory MPs talk up Clegg’s departure as inevitable is that the Lib Dem leader’s determination to carry on is an obstacle to the completion of their own stra­tegic calculations. It is a position elegantly described by an aerial view of Sheffield in which the wards and constituencies are colour-coded by party allegiance. The densely populated, industrial heart of the city is all red. To the west is rural Derbyshire, a swath of blue. Sandwiched between them on the bourgeois boundary is the lonely orange wedge of Hallam. Labour, under Miliband, has not found a reliable way to penetrate the suburbs. The Tories under Cameron show no sign of reversing their expulsion from northern cities. It is one reason why parliament is hung and looks likely to stay that way. It might even be a reason why Clegg’s party is spared the annihilation wished upon it by its enemies.

The Deputy Prime Minister has a peculiar grip on British politics, a great brittle power derived from the fact that the stability of the whole coalition experiment resides in his hands. His departure would unleash an ex­plosive uncertainty. As his popularity in the country shrinks and his rivals fight centrifugal tendencies in their own parties, Clegg stubbornly holds the centre.