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Last year Nick Clegg and his predecessor, coach and trainer Paddy Ashdown, shaped the future of Britain. If only for the briefest of moments it is worth looking back at what happened, not least as it also signals the shallow nature of the Tory victory.
Clegg and Ashdown claim to be the tough hard-fighting realists, the true patriots who saved the country from the extremes of Tory supremacy. This conceit is blown out the water by Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt’s long, fascinating account of the Clegg leadership of the Lib Dems in the Guardian. In May 2014, after the local and European elections prefigured this year’s Lib Dem parliamentary wipeout, Clegg called Ashdown saying, “If I am the problem I will resign”. Ashdown, for it was surely he, replied "tough titties” and told him to carry on. Wintour and Watt quote Ashdown telling them that Clegg moved with “astonishing speed... from the darkest of the dark nights of the soul to utterly on form, utterly clear about what he was doing”. The ridiculously hyperbolic language tells us the opposite: the clarity Clegg enjoyed was the bright light of self-deception.
Responding to the article, Clegg kindly agreed to the flattering description that he had experienced “the darkest of the dark nights of the soul” but insisted that his resigning would have made “no difference” to the outcome of the General Election. Yet the article spells out how he knew that Vince Cable was waiting in the wings as the alternative leader.
The decision was not therefore whether Clegg would resign but whether he would allow Cable to be his replacement. Another part of the long account reveals that Naomi Smith and other ‘Social Liberals’ wanted Vince Cable to mount a stronger direct challenge. The real point however is that the risk of their coming political annihilation was clear to all the Lib Dem leaders and the case for a change overwhelming.
Cable could have delivered this. Unacceptable as a member of the ‘quad’ (the two Tories, Cameron and Osborne, and two Lib Dems, Clegg and Alexander, that steered the coalition), had Cable become leader he would have taken the Lib Dems out of the coalition. He and his team understood this was the task.
Momentum and direction determine much of politics. Leaving the Tories would have turned the Lib Dems facing towards Labour a year before the election. Playing a hard to get piggy-in-the-middle with just twelve months to go would have been ridiculously unconvincing. Anyway an offer from Cable would have been an invitation Labour would have been insane to refuse. An offer, that is, of a pre-election Lib Dem pact.
Creating the new coalition in opposition is certainly more principled than doing it after the election. Cable could have become shadow chancellor, relieving Ed Miliband of his heavy chain of Balls. At a stroke it would have shifted Labour from having no answer to the question of whether it had changed from the Brown years. An opposition coalition would also have offered a firm base for opposing the SNP. With Labour and Lib Dem candidates standing down in seats where the other was stronger, Balls would today still be an MP (he lost by 450 votes the Lib Dem candidate got 1,400). Indeed, he would have been in government.
The Clegg-Ashdown claim is that their approach allowed their party to moderate and temper the extremes of Tory and/or Labour rule, as demonstrated in 2010 with an original and far-reaching coalition agreement. But as the next election approached this made their posture entirely passive-reactive from the point of view of the voter, while their integrity had been shot to pieces over student fees and the NHS. Meanwhile, the Tories were hunting them down constituency by constituency. Faced with the need to rethink Lib Dem strategy, Clegg urged on by Ashdown put personal pride before party and country and stopped thinking at all. The result delivered the country to unrestrained Tory rule. In this way they buried the very legacy of being the moderating influence that was their most plausible claim to achievement and destroyed their party in the process.
Of course, nothing is certain and I am indulging in a ‘what might have been’. The exercise is worth a few seconds of reflection, however. It shows that the self-proclaimed patriots of Clegg and Ashdown were losers not leaders, thanks to their self-righteousness. It shows that the defeated like Cable, Smith and Oakeshott, were right to see the coming disaster and seek to prevent it. And it shows that a quite different election outcome could have taken place in May this year, however much local Labour parties might have resisted an electoral pact. And what all this reminds us of is that the Tory victory rests on a shallow electoral base of 37 per cent support.
It does not follow that while Labour and the Lib Dems might well have been in government that either will ever find it possible to return. On the contrary: a pact would have been a desperate measure demanded by the desperate situation both parties were in. Labour too was in denial. Neither now seem likely to undo the self-inflicted damage. Hence the historic character of that moment in the spring of 2014 when Clegg and Ashdown were brought face to face with making way for an alternative.
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