Comment: Clegg needs to ride the storm

The pressure on the Lib Dems is considerable, but Clegg is playing the long game.

By Ian Dunt

The hatred towards Clegg is magnificent. His deputy PMQs raised more anger than the Budget. Labour MPs despise him. His every word is greeted by a wall of abuse from the opposition benches. And you don’t exactly get a sense of love from the Tories behind him either.

The fact that Harriet Harman dedicated most of her response to the Budget to attacking his party speaks volumes. It was pretty colourful stuff. “How could [the Lib Dems] let the Tories so exploit them?” she asked. “Can’t they see they are just a fig leaf? The Lib Dem leaders have sacrificed everything they ever stood for to ride in ministerial cars.”

The political motive is obvious. Lib-Con divisions are easily the most vulnerable aspect of the government. But the angry response to the Lib Dems’ presence on the government benches, especially during as divisive a Budget as yesterday’s, is also entirely genuine. Labour and the Lib Dems have always basically considered themselves bed fellows. This is why Labour always hates them so much. Freud called it the “narcissism of petty differences”. Labour MPs understand that Tories are just Tories, but the Lib Dems are traitors to the progressive cause. They were traitors when they were created, and now they’re doing it again.

It was only men like Tony Blair, who never felt the emotional pull of the Labour movement, who were willing to get chummy with the Liberals, as Gordon Brown always so scornfully called them. At its heart, Labour has always been the most profoundly party political of Britain’s parties, presumably because its origins hark back to class war politics. That’s why Prescott uttered such unspeakable nonsense about Hutton being a “collaborator” over the weekend.

But the Lib Dems are not comfortable with the status quo either. Words are words, and the Budget yesterday was no more than words. It wasn’t single mothers being thrown out of their homes, as some bloggers are suggesting will happen when it is implemented. It wasn’t falling corporation tax while the poor pay more in VAT. It wasn’t the actual pain. Once that hits, the divisions in the Lib Dems may become painfully clear.

It’s of no surprise that a party with the word liberal in its name should be divided.
After all, the word itself has been unhelpful for years now. On the one hand, it carries that old Victorian sense of freedom, the paternalistic Whig view of society, thereby being socially liberal but also emphatically committed to the free market – hence the new phrase ‘neo-liberal economics’. On the other hand it carries that American translation which denotes a much broader sense of simply being on the left. The Liberal Democrats’ social views are coherent and united. Its economic views are far more complicated.

The ‘Orange Bookers’ on the right of the party may have won the battle, sitting in Cabinet while their more leftie colleagues are locked on the backbenches. But Clegg did not join the Tories to see through a fiscal agenda. He made a calculation: if he could secure a set of civil and constitutional reforms he would have done well for the country and for his party.

Those policies are: House of Lords reform, which has been fought over for a century. Accomplishing that alone would be impressive. Civil liberties, including the great repeal bill and a British bill of rights which would bind future governments to respecting our freedoms. And finally the vote on AV.

Clegg just needs to survive this storm. His plan is four years long, allowing for a year separation before the next general election. By that time, the economy should have improved, or at least that’s the gamble, and they will have secured more constitutional reforms in one parliament than most governments achieve in a generation.

But for that, his MPs need to behave and swallow some pretty drastically right wing and unpleasant medicine. Labour must fail to drive a wedge through the party and the Tories need to keep in mind the unique pressures he is under.

One argument should do his job for him: what else could the Lib Dems have done? Labour weren’t interested. Supporting the Tories as a minority government would have still forced the Lib Dems to vote for the Budget, or else bring down a nebulous government at a time of war abroad and economic uncertainty at home. There was no responsible option but to create a coalition. In that agreement, the Tories got to lead on economic affairs, while the Lib Dems could secure their constitutional reforms.

That’s not a bad deal, and Lib Dem MPs thinking of rocking the boat would do well to remember that it’s either that or oblivion.

Things will get dark now. The honeymoon is over. But Clegg is playing the long game, and we won’t know if he pulled it off for another four years.

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