Have you ever made a stew and realised that it’s woefully inadequate to feed the number of people for which it is intended? Or it’s managed one meal but won’t stretch to another, so you’re forced to pad it out with a tin of beans. Any old beans will do. Any bulky, flavourless carbohydrate.
Nick Clegg is that tin of beans.
Clegg’s tactic for the election is to pitch his party as the necessary bulk needed to eke out a full government. Much like whoever did the budgeting in the Conservative manifesto, the Liberal Democrats are here just to make up the numbers.
For all his claims that he doesn’t want “to prop up the two-party system”, propping it up is the all Clegg can possibly do. The Liberal Democrats used to present a legitimate third option; now even they will only offer you Labour or the Tories. They’re attempting to drive voters from smaller parties to the Big Two in the hope that they can attach themselves, limpet-like, to whomever can form a government.
It’s partly this reason why the policies of the Lib Dems simply don’t matter in this election. A party without policies, without personality, is a better coalition partner; it’s why you don’t dilute orange squash with gravy. Plus, the less they can talk about their manifesto, the less we are reminded of their headline policy from 2010. One is not inclined to vote for a man with an enormous £27,000 albatross visibly hanging around his neck.
Neither coalition with Labour nor the Tories would bring the Lib Dems true partnership, only watered down versions of whoever’s knee on which they sit. The Lib Dems do not propose to share government, merely to create a weaker version of someone else’s. Clegg explicitly wants to move policies to “centre ground, right in the centre, bang in the middle”, but who wants this? This is the reason margarita pizzas are always disappointingly served at social occasions. The point of democracy is not to please everyone by creating some mimsy, mealy-mouthed, middling government. If Clegg wants to end two-party politics, thinning out the policies of another party does nothing to achieve that. Only a government that represents all of the elected parties proportionally actually ends the two-party system. (I accept it is conceivably a little late in the day for Clegg to take this task on, but I suspect he might have some free time coming up.)
With Ukip a threatening streak of beetroot piss across the polls, the Lib Dems have become the anti-Ukip, the protest vote that vaguely helps the democratic process continue, but doesn’t drift in any particular direction. Damn him with faint praise it may, but if Clegg has one thing going for him – and he may – unlike Nigel Farage, a large proportion of the population don’t think he’s a dangerous lunatic. The Lib Dems have recognised that while few people might purposely vote for them shoring up a larger party, a lot of people would very strongly vote against any government borne aloft on Ukip’s shoulders.
Farage and Ukip’s election strategy is to be as flavoursome as possible. A deeply unpleasant flavour, but flavoursome nonetheless. Clegg meanwhile, dangles on his zipwire, the desperate image of a Head of Year trying to win over disdainful Year 11s on a post-GCSEs outing. One might call it tragic, but then you never caught Oedipus having a quick go on the Zorbs.
Now the Lib Dems paint him in a different pose, promising the Tories a heart and Labour a brain. (Ukip are presumably more than happy to help Dorothy go home.) I suspect that perhaps they could have thought this literary allusion through better, for now we have Clegg as the Wizard of Oz: a little man hiding in a cubicle, pretending to be more powerful than he is. An ineffectual balloonist, repeatedly foiled by a little dog. A huckster. A self-confessed humbug.
In 2010, I truly thought Clegg would change British politics. He did, just not in the way we suspected. Or necessarily wanted. He is desperately clinging to his party and his party is desperately clinging to its seats. For all he has and has not done with the Tories, I still do not quite believe Clegg to be a bad man. Just a very bad wizard.