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Nick Clegg: the Biography

The choices reveal the leader.

Nick Clegg: the Biography
Chris Bowers
Biteback, 256pp, £17.99

The striking thing about this defensive biography of Nick Clegg is how much of it is spent debating whether he is a Conservative.

The author, a Liberal Democrat activist, likes his leader a great deal. "Idealism in politics is at stake through the person of Nick Clegg," we are told. "He believes in the intrinsic good­ness of people" and "he may yet be headed for great things, as many have believed for some time".

Like the prophet, Clegg may go unrecognised in his own country; but apparently this is a problem for the country, not for him. "Clegg remains as much a challenge for the British people as they are for him," Chris Bowers writes. "If there is any genuineness in the cries for a better form of politics . . . he should become popular again, as he [represents] something different."

But different in what respect? Much of Bowers's book consists of interviews with fellow Lib Dems and friends of Clegg, including, tellingly, Leon Brittan - for whom Clegg worked in Brussels when the former Tory minister was a European commissioner - and Ed Vaizey, a current Tory minister with whom he travelled to the Arctic Circle for a week in 2007.

The consensus is that the "something different" about Clegg is that he is a different kind of Liberal Democrat from his predecessors as party leader. He is on the right where they were on the left, and what made him opt for the Lib Dems rather than the Tories was not "a better form of politics", but rather one issue - Europe.

Clegg's Europeanism stems as much from lifestyle as from conviction: the Spanish wife, Dutch mother and Russian grandparents; the career in Brussels; the fluency in four European languages. This accounts for the difference in his liberalism, too. His free-market libertarianism is common in right-wing liberal parties on the Continent, and he has little rapport with the 20th-century social-democratic tradition that dominated the Liberal Party and its successors from Asquith, Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge through to Roy Jenkins, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. Indeed, Bowers notes that until he became an MP in 2005, after five years as an MEP, Clegg "had very little knowledge of Britain politically".

Thus Chris Davies, a Liberal Democrat MEP and friend of the leader's, says: "I think of him more as a Continental liberal than perhaps a mainstream British liberal." Andrew Duff, another Lib Dem MEP, observes: "If the Conservative Party had been how it used to be under Edward Heath, Nick would be a Tory, albeit a natural liberal, pro-European Tory like Chris Patten and Ken Clarke."

His Tory friends agree. According to Brittan, Clegg "didn't like Labour at all and didn't like the Conservatives enough. He was very unhappy with the Conservatives' European policy." Vaizey says he is "essentially Tory but divided by one issue, in his case Europe".

The journalist John Palmer, who knew Clegg well in Brussels, links Europe to his neoliberalism. "His work with Leon [Brittan] in and around the single market and competition policy probably had quite a strong influence on him. He was quite markedly to the right of some of his colleagues."

The matter of Europe apart, Clegg fits the Cameroon glove in background, outlook, style, the lot. The English side of his family could hardly be more establishment. The son of a wealthy Buckinghamshire banker, educated at prep school and Westminster like his grand­father (his father was at Bryanston), he emerges from this biography as a Home Counties, public-school, dutiful Tory in largely the same mould as David Cameron and George Osborne. Which is why, given the choice last year, he opted to form a coalition with them rather than stand aside from a Tory government, or negotiate a "confidence and supply" agreement with the Conservatives, or form a coalition with Labour - all credible options.

He told his party there was "no alternative". Margaret Thatcher said that, too, yet this is never true in politics. To govern is to choose, said Pierre Mendès France, and the choices reveal the leader. In Clegg's case, the choice was not only to coalesce with the Tories, but also to support their economic policy without compromise, and even to front the trebling of university tuition fees. Significantly, Bowers reports that Clegg supported tuition fees before the election, but was too weak within his own party - and too much of an opportunist - to take on the membership or tell the voters.

His Tory inclinations are all the clearer in his statements during the election to the effect that, in the event of a hung parliament, he would negotiate first with the largest party as a matter of principle. As he knew, this was contrary to constitutional precedent and international practice. It also contradicted the position of previous Lib Dem and Liberal leaders, who had said simply that they would seek to get the best deal for the party in the wider national interest. Given that, in 2010, the Tories were very likely to be the largest party in any hung parliament, Clegg knew this would give momentum to a Tory-Lib Dem coalition above all other options. And so it proved.

Here lies a crucial point of distinction with Continental politics. The major centre-right parties on the Continent - the successors to the Gaullists in France, the Christian Demo­crats in Germany and Benelux - have tended to be corporatist and statist. Liberal parties in these countries inject a dose of market individualism into coalitions of the right. In Britain, by contrast, the post-Thatcher Tory party is thoroughly neoliberal, though it is wearing a "big society" badge this time around. This means that a Lib Dem leader from the same stable is mutually reinforcing, not a force for compromise. Which is precisely the record of the Cameron/Clegg coalition in practice.

Why is the Lib Dem social-democratic majority putting up with it? It doesn't quite realise that a coup took place last year (I have lost count of how many Lib Dems have told me: "Nick had no alternative but to go in with the Tories"). These Lib Dems like the idea of their party being in government and latch on to the small mercies - a referendum on AV here, a bit of Murdoch-bashing there. And they are still out of sorts with Labour. Above all, they have no choice, until they get a new leader. They were not in the room when Clegg and Cameron did the deal. They are not in cabinet meetings when Tory policy after Tory policy is agreed.

Bowers invites the nation to admire Clegg's accomplishments. Whatever you think of his politics, he is a man apart. Not only the talented linguist and the easygoing nice guy, there is also Clegg the sage: "He has a deep-rooted love of English literature and is comfortable with demanding works." His favourite is Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, "a fairly challenging Italian novel . . . imbued with hidden meaning, and not the kind of book many would be found reading on the 7.20 in to Waterloo."

It's true. On the 7.20, they are more concerned with grubby, everyday things such as jobs, taxes, riots, the state of England's schools, trains and hospitals. They may not be imbued with Lampedusa's insights into the Sicilian aristocracy. But they know a Tory when they see one, and they know a leopard doesn't change its spots.

Andrew Adonis was a member of the last Labour cabinet

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide