Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
28 November 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:06am

The four big tests for Nick Clegg

And tuition fees is not among them.

By Jon Bernstein

No sooner had the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition been created on 11 May than people start asking how long would it last — and how long would Nick Clegg be part of it?

Ladbrokes, at least, believes that the current Lib Dem leader is likely to be there at the next general election, nominally on 7 May 2015. The bookmaker is offering a less-than-generous 1/3 that he will still be in place, and 2/1 that he will have been replaced.

All of which prompts Mike Smithson over at PoliticalBetting to ask what would prompt — or force — Clegg to stand down before 2015. For starters, Smithson identifies four upcoming tests over the next six months:

For Clegg a lot could depend on three elections in the next six months – the [Oldham and Saddleworth] by election, the English locals and the Scottish and Welsh votes on May 5th and, of course, the AV referendum on the same day.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

And concludes:

If the yellows beat expectations in just one of those then I think that he’s safe.

An October YouGov poll put the Lib Dems on 8 per cent among the Holyrood electorate, while just a third of UK voters are in favour of the alternative vote. So perhaps expectations are already being managed downwards, albeit inadvertently. A heroic failure to see the AV referendum through or something less than wipeout in any of the array of forthcoming elections will strengthen, not weaken, the Lib Dem leader. Perhaps.

One area that Smithson doesn’t touch on directly, but that has tested Clegg’s authority, is university funding — and likely for good reason. Last Wednesday’s protests and those at 30 Millbank on 10 November offer a measure of the disquiet out there, but do nothing to change the parliamentary arithmetic.

It’s true that some 31 Lib Dem MPs — all of whom have significant numbers of student voters in their constituencies — may rebel against plans to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 per year. However, in order to defeat the government a rump of Tory backbenchers would need to join them — and that is not going to happen.

So, tuition fees don’t present an immediate danger to Clegg and the coalition but they have made him public enemy number one among a significant constituency of voters. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Tim Montgomerie notes:

There is also anger about U-turns on nuclear power and the pace of deficit reduction. [Clegg] needs to remind voters that he forced Tory concessions, too – a voting system referendum and dropped commitments to cut inheritance tax, reform human rights laws and upgrade the Trident nuclear deterrent.

But those hoping that Labour can capitalise on Clegg’s woes are likely to be disappointed. As Montgomerie rightly points out, Labour’s attack has been blunted by divisions between leader Ed Miliband and “enforcer” Alan Johnson:

Ed Miliband should be facing an open goal – but standing between the posts is Alan Johnson. The Labour leader wants a graduate tax – an extra levy on those with a degree – to which his shadow chancellor is completely opposed. In an open letter to Mr Miliband, shortly before accepting his new role, he wrote: “For goodness’ sake, don’t pursue a graduate tax. We should be proud of our brave and correct decision to introduce tuition fees.”