Nick Clegg’s New Year message leans heavily on things he had less than nothing to do with:
“The last twelve months have been lit up by moments that will stay with us forever. When Mo Farah approached the final stretch of the 10,000m final, who wasn’t up on their feet, screaming at the TV?
“When Nicola Adams beamed at the crowd after winning the first ever women’s Olympic boxing, who didn’t smile back? I was lucky enough to be there, and that’s one I’ll never forget.
“Was there anything more British than that drenched choir in the Jubilee River Pageant, singing Rule Britannia! in the pouring rain?
“Incredible images. Spectacular shows. Jaw-dropping personal triumphs.”
Sadly, none of them involved the Liberal Democratic party or its leader.
To be able to form a government the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons needs to be able to count on a minimum of 326 votes: otherwise, as soon as the government does something which the opposition cannot approve of, they can hold a vote of no confidence which the government will lose: Parliament is dissolved, a general election occurs.
The median age of the population of the UK is 40.2: the last time there was a general election called in those circumstances was October 1974. Over half the population are not old enough to remember this except as a historical report: no one under 56 is old enough to have voted in 1974, the year of two elections. Gordon Brown would have been 23 that year.
Ed Miliband wouldn’t yet have been 5: Nick Clegg was 7: David Cameron would have been 7 at the time of the first General Election in 1974, and the second happened the day after his 8th birthday.
In May 2010, David Cameron had 307 votes in the House of Commons: Nick Clegg had 57: and Labour had 258. No party except the Conservatives could afford to fight a second General Election that year. The 8 DUP MPs traditionally vote with the Tories, giving Cameron a shaky 315: Alex Salmond offered his 6 votes but it would have taken considerable effort among very minority parties and independents to build an odd, awkward, shaky coalition of 326 – which it is not altogether surprising neither LibDem nor Labour wanted part of.
After all, Labour’s leadership must have thought, how bad can five years of modified-Tory governance be? Indeed, for Labour MPs, things are not so bad. An MP has a guaranteed salary of £65,738 plus expenses and a secure job until the next general election: and the worse the Tories get, the more likely that a Labour MP will keep their job in 2015. If you earn £65K+ even without MP expenses, you are better off than most people in the UK – and this doesn’t account for the lucrative deals an MP can make on the side with people who absolutely want nothing whatsoever from them but to give them expensive presents entirely altruistically.
But Nick Clegg, that weekend in May, made the worst decision any LibDem leader ever made. (It’s arguable that it was even worse than deciding to fight for the Tory bill to sell off the NHS in England and Wales when this wasn’t on their manifesto agreement.)
Clegg opted to put 57 votes at the service of the Tory party, and won himself a place in LibDem history:
The full details of the YouGov/Sunday Times poll [23rd September 2012] are now up here. Topline figures are CON 34%, LAB 43%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 8% – so a nine point lead and pretty much in line with YouGov’s recent polls (the seven point lead some people were tweeting last night comes from hypothetical match ups, of which we’ll come to later).
The regular leaders approval ratings stand at minus 21 for Cameron, minus 29 for Miliband and minus 63 for Clegg, this is Clegg’s worst score so far (although only marginally down from minus 61 last week, which itself was a record low).
That September poll was just after Nick Clegg had issued that cringeworthy apology about voting for a raise in tuition fees when he’d promised he wouldn’t:
On the Liberal Democrats and the coalition, with the benefit of hindsight 34% of people think entering the coalition was the right thing for the Liberal Democrats to do, compared to 48% who think it was the wrong decision. A majority (52%) think the decision to go into coalition has turned out to be bad for Britain. Asked what they would like to happen in the future, 30% would prefer to see a Labour/Lib Dem coalition, 26% a minority Conservative government, 19% for the coalition to continue. More interesting are the breakdowns amongst party supporters – slightly more Tory supporters would prefer a minority government (49%) than the present coalition (44%), amongst remaining Lib Dem supporters only 38% support the coalition, 26% would prefer a coalition with Labour, 16% would prefer a minority Conservative government. A hefty majority (63%) of Labour supporters would naturally prefer a Lab-LD coalition.
Turning to Nick Clegg himself, he is seen as indecisive by 66% (decisive 14%), untrustworthy by 58% (trustworthy 24%), weak 75% (strong 11%)… but is still seen as likeable by 42% (dislikeable by 38%). Attitudes to the apology are mixed – while people say it had made Clegg look weaker (by 41% to 21%), they are evenly split on whether they feel more positive or negative about him as a result of it – 16% of people say it has made them more positive about Clegg, 17% more negative. They are also quite evenly split on whether the apology was genuine – 35% think it was, 40% think it was not.
Probably the last poll of the year came out on Christmas Day:
The last monthly poll of the year that was still outstanding, ICM for the Guardian, turned up on Christmas Day of all times. Topline figures were CON 32%(nc), LAB 40%(nc), LDEM 13%(nc) – the figures are all typical of ICM’s polling of late (the comparatively high Liberal Democrat level of support is methodological, and normally due to the reallocation of a proportion of don’t knows to the party they voted for last time, which usually produces a higher Lib Dem score and a lower Labour lead).
(The last Sunday Times poll of the year, published 23rd December, showed CON 33%, LAB 43%, LD 10%, UKIP 8%.)
With those polling numbers, Labour would have a majority of over a hundred seats. They wouldn’t need the LibDems as coalition partners no matter how well the LibDems did, and the LibDems are going to have a dieback which they may never recover from.
The YouGov polls in April 2010 mostly showed:
Conservatives at 33-34%, Labour at 27-29%, the Lib Dems mostly around 28-29%
Clegg’s decision to take the LibDems into coalition with the Conservatives cost them 18-20% in the polls – two-thirds of the support they used to get. Even the most lukewarm of LibDem defenders have said that they don’t see what else Clegg could have decided to do. The realistic other option was always to offer the Conservatives a promise of support in minority government – to vote with them to allow the ordinary government of the day to be carried on, or if Labour tried to force a no-confidence vote to set the date for a general election on their terms – but never to vote for anything that was against the LibDem manifesto.
The LibDems would not have got an AV referendum if they had gone for this option. They would have been broadly condemned by all the right-wing press – which is to say, most of the UK media – for selfishly denying the Tories coalition government: they would have been broadly condemned by all the left-wing press, what there is of it, for selfishly grabbing more influence in government than they were entitled to by the number of seats they’d won. They’d have got no seats in Cabinet: no senior LibDem MPs would have got a ministerial salary – and Nick Clegg would have still been just the leader of the LibDem party, not Deputy Prime Minister.
But they would have had influence in government far beyond what Clegg obtained for them in the coalition agreement. The Tories would have been unable to privatise the NHS, raise tuition fees, or break the welfare state. But then, given the Tories could not be confident of victory in the Commons, would they have tried the revolutionary “reforms” that they have inflicted on us so far? We wouldn’t know what the LibDems had saved us from by accepting the risks and benefits of being a minority government’s unpopular support; and no doubt there would still have been votes where the LibDems supported the Tories on an unpopular issue, if not quite so many and not quite so vile a set of promises broken.
Would the Tories have accepted the deal? The party governance would have known that while in theory they could afford to fight another General Election, and in practice (it worked for Harold Wilson in October 1974) might even have gained some seats, they probably couldn’t politically afford to simply reject an offered deal and be the party responsible for calling a General Election again four weeks after the last. If they accepted the support of the LibDems, they had to go with it until it became obviously untenable. Maybe we would have seen the Tories proposing exactly the policies they did, in order to force the LibDems to vote against them and then vote with them when Labour proposed a vote of no-confidence.
David Cameron would probably have been even less popular among Tory MPs than he is today.
England and Wales probably wouldn’t be getting gay marriage till after the next general election – as by that time Scotland would be well on its way to lifting the ban on same-sex couples marrying, the next Westminster government, whatever the political flavour, would have to lift the ban to equalise with Scotland.
Ed Miliband would probably still be Labour leader. (Unfortunately.)
If David Laws had never got a seat in Cabinet, he would probably still be in the closet.
The LibDems could have settled back to really enjoy the Leveson inquiry.
The Olympics would still have happened, and all three major parties would probably still have been claiming climactic events from it as political talismans.
George Osborne might not have been booed at the Paralympics if the Conservatives had been frustrated in their aim to cut support away from disabled people.
But the Orange Book LibDems at the top of the party would have directed their MPs to vote with the Conservatives for cut, cut, and cut, on the wholly false idea that if people are paid less and working less this will somehow magically recover the economy. (Probably more LibDem rebels voting with Labour, though.)
And we would probably have had a General Election by now. If Labour had won it – though doubtless with less of a majority than they are looking at for 2015 – the Scottish independence referendum would look less and less promising for a Yes vote.
But none of that happened.
Nick Clegg is still hopeful that if he can claim the LibDems are “anchoring the government in the centre ground” enough times people might believe him rather than their lying eyes. After all, what else can he say? If he admits out loud that he knows in May 2010 he made the worst mistake of his political career, that he wrecked the LibDems and they may never recover so long as he remains an active LibDem politician – well, that would be the last political speech of his career. Goodness knows, Clegg turned out to be enough of a cheap-work conservative that he may believe that workfare and unemployment and low incomes and welfare cuts are the right way to go about
“building a stronger economy, in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life”
because that’s how things work when your ideology is cheap-work conservativism.
If you are a cheap-work conservative, it’s reassuring to know that the UK government will continue to cut the economy into multi-dip recession and more and more people in work will be struggling just to get by. Those are “better times” for the rich.
As Clegg says:
“Over the holidays people want a break from politics as much as from work – I know that. But as you look to the year ahead, you also deserve the reassurance that your government has a plan to steer the country onto better times – and that we’re going to stick to it.
“So I want you to hear it from me, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, that this Coalition Government is not going to lurch one way or the next.
“We will stay the course on the deficit. We will cut income tax bills and help with childcare bills. We will invest in boosting jobs and we’ll reform welfare to get people into work.
“Reforming welfare” to get people into work, for a cheap-work conservative, doesn’t mean creating new jobs or mandating higher wages; it means cutting welfare, and cutting it again, and having targets to get people into workfare posts where they won’t get paid. Anything to cut the number of people actually claiming jobseeker’s allowance without actually doing a thing to have employers to hire more people or pay them a living wage.
“A stronger economy – a fairer society, where everyone can get on. That’s what we’re about. That’s what I want 2013 to be about.
So when Clegg says: …he really means: There’s going to be lots more welfare cuts. There’s going to be lots more food banks. The economy is going to tank. But, I’m going to keep smiling through!
“And, however you usher it in, I hope you have a fantastic time. Happy New Year!”
Anyone for a game of darts?