The Liberal Democrats have problems bigger than the departure of Nick Clegg’s Director of Strategy, announced last night. Still, the loss of Richard Reeves will be felt keenly by the Deputy Prime Minister. Reeves is leaving for the US for family reasons (his wife is American) and any suggestions that the political health of the Clegg project might be a consideration are fiercely denied. Nonetheless, Reeves has been quite central to the Lib Dem leader in mapping out and articulating the strategic approach to coalition with the Tories. (Not surprisingly, given the party’s poll ratings, that strategy is not universally cheered as a triumph in the party or Westminster at large.)
It was Reeves who effectively drew up the roadmap that started with maximum harmony with the Conservatives – to demonstrate that coalition was a viable form of government – followed by “differentiation” – carving out the party’s autonomous position within the coalition – and later, some time shortly before a general election, separation. For more sceptical observers this looks suspiciously like a post hoc rationalisation of a process that started out as naive cosying up to Cameron and was followed by desperate clawing back of political identity in the face of possible electoral annihilation. In reality, like all political strategies, some of it has been planned and much of it busked. Reeves is certainly a good busker – always articulate, engaging, intellectually animated, clever and candid. Journalists like him for that reason.
But a problem has been the suspicion among many in the party that he is not authentically Lib Dem. Reeves is seen as a classic liberal, with perhaps tinges of New Labour – one of the many Blairite refugees floating around Westminster looking for the fabled centre ground of politics. That has played to anxiety in the party that Clegg is insufficiently sensitive to the wounded feelings on his party’s old social democratic left flank. At its most extreme this translates into a suspicion that Clegg, encouraged by Reeves, would happily chase queasy lefties out of the party altogether.
That may be a little paranoid but it is a sentiment that Clegg needs to address in some way. It would certainly be simpler for him to run a slimmed down band of “Orange Book” liberals offering technocratic, centrist, coalition services to whichever big party happens to have the highest number of seats in Parliament. But that isn’t the party he actually leads. Reeves, in that sense, was as much an ideologist of Cleggism as a strategist for the Liberal Democrats. It will be interesting to see whether the Deputy Prime Minister seeks the same service in a replacement.