Nick Clegg

In the nation’s interests

I have received howls of protest over the last few days from Lib Dem members, people who voted Lib Dem but usually vote Labour, and people who have never voted Lib Dem and never intend to. Some have demanded that Nick Clegg immediately fall into line behind Cameron and stop negotiating for ‘party advantage’. Some have insisted that for Clegg to co-ally would be a betrayal of all that is most sacred. Some have told me that talking to Labour was equivalent to state treachery, and Clegg can never be trusted again. By email, phone, Facebook, txt, tweet and even visits to my door, and, bizarrest of all, an email sent from Australia by someone I had never heard of directed to all Lib Dem candidates who contested the election, it’s been made clear to me that whatever Nick Clegg did, not everyone would be happy.

I have to confess I’ve struggled to get quite as emotionally caught up in this as some people. Those of us who stand for parliament do so with an underlying notion of public service. Of course we want our party to win. And there is always personal ambition: we want to be in there, making the decisions, with our fingers on the turning of the world. But nobody would go through the five weeks of gruelling punishment, preceded by four years of selection and campaigning, preceded in turn by how ever many years of becoming involved and going through a candidate approval process, unless there was more than simply the desire for our team to win.

Nick Clegg was always honour-bound to make his decision in the nation’s best interests. Anything less would have simply ruled him unfit to be a party leader.

The only question was: what decision would be in the nation’s best interests?

I will put my cards on the table: after last year’s expenses debacle, and this year’s scandal over the Ashcroft million, electoral reform seems to me to be one of the nation’s most important and pressing concerns. The result of the General Election — no clear majority in parliament, nothing like a majority in the popular vote (Tories polled only 12% more than Lib Dems, lest we forget, but gained more than five times as many seats) — demonstrates very clearly that the public are not satisfied.

But, although pressing, electoral reform is not the most pressing concern. I do not accept the view of the scaremongerers that Britain is about to go the way of Greece. David Cameron has already had to eat his words that a hung parliament would spell economic disaster. But it is true that the economy is right at the top of the list of things that need to be fixed now, and fixed right.

A coalition with Labour was always a long-shot, and Clegg was right to honour his election pledge and talk first to the party with the most votes. But he was also right to at least attempt a deal with Labour. This was not treachery, as some of the Tory press and some of my own correspondents have suggested, but a necessary and entirely honourable step: Clegg was duty bound to explore both feasible possibilities as he decided for the United Kingdom who should be the next prime minister.

For the record, I think it would have been possible to do it. (I do not say that it would have necessarily been the best thing, but I do say that it would have been possible). Those who argued that this was undemocratic forget the very shaky ground on which they stand: Labour and the Lib Dems between them gained more than 50% of the popular vote, although, because of our misrepresentative system, this was not quite 50% of the seats in parliament. Labour certainly seemed ready to promise a much swifter, much surer route to electoral reform. And Gordon Brown nobly was willing to accept Nick Clegg’s other election promise — that, whatever happened, Brown would not continue as Prime Minister.

But it was Labour MPs themselves who made it quite clear that they had no real interest in staying in government. From the point that (then, still) government ministers went on the record in public stating this, the chances of a deal with Labour were over.

Many Lib Dem voters find the coalition with the Conservatives distasteful. I personally remained on good terms with all the candidates in the Stratford election, except for the BNP who never attended any of the debates and with whom I never spoke. But there have been instances where Tory attacks were brutal and unfounded. And we have endured the jeers and scorn of the Tory press barons for more than a generation.

It is certainly true that very few will have voted Lib Dem with the aim of putting David Cameron in government.

But Nick Clegg still had to put the nation’s interest ahead of his own. The choice between a Conservative minority government which would be almost certain to fall in recriminations within six months, in which time it would have made little real progress in tackling the economic crisis, and none at all in electoral reform, or a true Lib Dem Con coalition, was one that simply could not be made in any other way from the way it has been made.

The solution is not perfect. David Cameron could have divested himself of the lacklustre George Osborne. If having Vince Cable as chancellor was too much to swallow (though it would have pleased the nation, and the markets), Ken Clarke was waiting in the wings, the only member of Cameron’s team who had ever served in a senior role in a government. There could have been (and should have) a commitment to a referendum on true electoral reform, not merely the disproportional Alternative Vote (AV) system. If the Conservatives believe that the public has no appetite for electoral reform, then they should have agreed to a referendum on the real issue. If they were willing to accept a grudging compromise and no more, they should have offered a simple bill on AV as Labour did, and left it at that. The nation is to be put to the trouble and expense of a referendum without being allowed to vote on the real topic of discussion.

Nonetheless, the prospect of an autumn election has receded to the horizon. Cameron’s lightweight team will be strongly bolstered by 5 Lib Dem cabinet ministers, and a total of 20 Lib Dems across his ministries.

Lib Dem fortunes at the next election will almost certainly suffer, and there will equally certainly be a spate of recriminations and even member-resignations. And this is the true mark of Nick Clegg’s leadership: at personal cost, he has put the interests of the nation first.

Voter intention 36:36:24

Following tonight’s final debate, ComRes have polled for voter intention, and the result is Lib Dems 36%, Conservatives 36%, Labour 24%. This is an important result, because it shows the aggregate effect of all the debates and everything else that has happened. Conservatives were quick to jump on two early polls which suggested Cameron had won the debate, but the key issue is not “who won tonight’s debate” but “who won the series as a whole”. The answer is quite clearly that Lib-Dems have shot up by a figure greater than 15%, and a totally different outcome is now expected from the Cameron-win-or-hung-parliament of two weeks and one day ago.

David Cameron has been pedalling the line that a hung parliament would be an unfair and undesirable result given that the Tories deserve to win. But, really, he has not got over the fact that, six months ago, he was nine points ahead in the polls. He is probably (though with certain rather obvious reservations) right that it would have been unfair for him to be neck and neck with Labour in terms of numbers of seats with a nine point lead — always providing that we accept that someone who scores a third of the vote should deserve to get more than half the seats. But his idea that it is unfair for him to not win the election when he doesn’t even poll the highest number of votes is patently absurd.

Cameron needs to have a good long look at himself. He paints himself as a liberal, progressive, ‘changed Conservative’. But, in reality, his entire approach to the election is that Labour has been in for 13 years and it’s now ‘his turn’.

It is not his turn. He has failed to persuade the majority of voters that he is Prime Ministerial material.

On tonight’s poll, based on the BBC’s uniform swing seat calculator, Tories would get 285 seats, Labour 182, and Lib Dems 157. Others would get 26. Cameron would not only be far short of the seats he needs to win, but would also be far short of the seats he needs to form a government with all of the ‘others’ as coalition partners, enabling him to side-step the question of a coalition with the Lib Dems and the requirement for proportional representation.

In any case, the Lib Dems are not offering anyone a coalition. As Nick Clegg has repeatedly pointed out, the electorate must decide who they want to run the country. Cameron does not seem to get this: his notion that he has some implicit right to be the next prime minister based on the same poll as his (now) main competitor is laughable. His notion that this status quo ought to continue until some serendipitous roll of the dice gives him that role is worse than laughable.

That 36:36:24 yields a result of 157:285:182 is surely the most compelling demonstration that our electoral system does not properly reflect the will of the people. Britain is demanding change — and real, not cosmetic, change.

Clegg edges Cameron out 2:1

In four polls after tonight’s debate, Cameron came first in one, Clegg in two, and they were equal in the fourth. Brown was last in three out of four polls, and joint second with Cameron in one poll.

YouGov: Cameron 36 per cent, Clegg 32 per cent, Brown 29 per cent

ComRes: Clegg 33 per cent Brown 30 per cent, Cameron 30 per cent.

Angus Reid: Clegg 35 per cent, Cameron 32 per cent, Brown 23 per cent.

Populus: Cameron 36 per cent, Clegg 36 per cent, Brown 27 per cent.

This comes hard on the heels of a nasty smear campaign run this morning in the national press, alleging that Clegg had acted improperly when, in fact, Clegg had not only acted properly but had also fully declared everything he was doing.

Cameron needed a knock-out blow tonight, and his spin-doctors had more or less promised one. He did not get it, and the ‘Clegg effect’ is set to grow.

On the streets, I have been amazed by the overwhelming welcome I’ve been getting since last Thursday. I went round a school this afternoon and was treated like a rock-star by children who (I guess) probably didn’t know who Nick Clegg was eight days ago, and certainly had no real interest in the Liberal Democrats.

It is changing. It is changing!

Decisive victory for Clegg

Following the first leaders’ debate on ITV tonight, Nick Clegg took 46% in the ComRes poll (Clegg 46, Cameron 26, Brown 20) — as much as Brown and Cameron put together. In the YouGov poll he took 51 points against Cameron 29 and Brown 19. There were, of course, a number of unscientific polls conducted on newspaper websites, but they do nothing more than reflect their readers’ opinions. The real, scientific, polls are unequivocal.

If this were replicated in an election (of course, it won’t be, but the illustration is still valid), it would result, according to the BBC website’s calculator, in 530 seats for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons — a majority of 410 seats: a landslide beyond all conception and all precedent.

Liberal Democrats were, of course, looking for Clegg to make up ground tonight. Brown is generally considered to be undervalued and Cameron overvalued, a view not supported by tonight’s public response. Conventional wisdom suggested that Clegg needed to be up with the others, and it would do Lib Dems good because of the exposure. But the scale of the Nick Clegg result was absolutely devastating: an absolute majority of votes in one poll, an equal vote with the other two parties combined in the other.

Where did the debate landslide victory come from?

There were three factors, I think.

First, Nick Clegg made a point of answering the question. I followed the BBC comments page while watching the debate, and — leaving aside the obviously partisan comments — this was commented on again and again. He not only answered the question, but made a point of looking at and referring to the questioner to see if they thought he was answering the questions. Brown famously jibed at Cameron ‘this is answer time, not question time’, and, certainly, Cameron’s unwillingness to give an actual answer told against him. But Brown’s own attempts fell flat as well. My feeling is that Brown really was trying to answer the questions from time to time, but he was held up by his own opaque language: beginning a sentence with “Net inward immigration…” three times does not make for a good connection with viewers.

Second, the Lib Dem manifesto published this week was a clear winner in terms of the power it gave to Clegg over the other two. The manifesto sets out in detail exactly what the Lib Dems would spend and what they would save. Neither Labour nor the Tories — as Clegg pointed out — included figures in their manifestos. Cameron tried to have a bit of a go about the figures, but it is never easy to argue with a man on his own turf: Clegg knew his manifesto and his figures much better than Cameron did, and Brown made no attempt to overturn the Lib Dem figures at all.

Third, Nick Clegg positioned his two opponents very clearly in his own address as the ‘same old same old parties’. The bickering between Brown and Cameron which followed underlined that again and again. Clegg certainly benefited from the game that Brown and Cameron tried to play. They were almost deferential in their treatment of him, and when Cameron did attempt to question Clegg, it fell rather flat, especially on immigration, which should have been his strongest suit. Brown again and again tried to say that he and Clegg were agreeing. Unfortunately for him, Clegg refused to play along. This was all especially important because, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the bulk of Tory/Labour jeers are often enough to drown out Clegg’s comments. In a studio, with a studio audience and clear rules, this extraneous factor was taken away.

What difference will all this make? That remains to be seen — over the next few days, as the pundits weave their theories, and as the spin-doctors from left and right attempt to demonstrate (as William Hague is already attempting) that, despite all the opinion polls, their candidate won after all.

There may be more polls tomorrow, and they may give a different result. But, for now, based on this debate only, and without any particular connection with other realities, the result is a clearer victory for Nick Clegg than any Liberal Democrat could have hoped for.

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