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Expert Comment: In Defence of Nick Clegg

0119 Prof Bill Jones Tuesday 3 June 2014

Following the Liberal Democrats' disappointing performance in the recent European Parliament elections, Professor of History and Polities Bill Jones speaks up for their beleaguered leader.

The Sunday Times reported a YouGov poll showing that a massive 78% thought Clegg was doing a bad job; only 13% thought the opposite; in May 2010 his approval rating had been a soaring 74%. These statistics seemed to release an huge bucketful of delighted schadenfreude whereby comedians and columnists luxuriated in his being brought so low. When an interview showed him red eyed and on the verge of tears, the hilarity, if anything, increased. Whilst never having voted Lib Dem I still thought this more than a little unfair. I would argue much of Clegg's time in power has been characterised by an unusual degree of political courage.

Back in May 2010 maybe he should have merely agreed to support a Cameron led minority government to keep his party free of the taint of too close an association with the Tories but, backed by Chris Huhne at the time, he opted for full coalition mode. The country was in the midst of an economic crisis and a minority government might have been perceived by the markets as too weak and caused a run on sterling. Like so much of politics the decision was a gamble though arguably a brave one. The alternative of remaining in opposition was safer but would have forever attracted the accusation that his party were afraid of the responsibilities of government. If damned to join the coalition or damned staying out, joining required courage. He was rubbished the length of the country for supporting higher tuition fees but, as he pointed out at the time, the exigencies of being in a coalition required compromises to be made.

Then, during the referendum campaign over the Alternative Vote, he had reason to expect Cameron to play only a background role. But Cameron reneged on this tacit deal and entered the fray to great effect, hastening a vote which helped establish Clegg's characterisation as a 'loser'. The next disaster was when right wing Tory MPs aborted his attempt to reform the House of Lords in August 2012. Clegg then, to Labour's delight, defied his partners in government; retaliated by refusing to support Tory plans to redraw constituency boundaries, which would likely have gained them another 20 seats in May next year.

At the last Lib Dem party conference in 2013 dire predictions were made of moves to displace Clegg but, again he refused to walk away and produced a fighting performance, listing the 16 items he says his party had achieved either directly or through moderating Conservative proposals with which it has disagreed. His imaginative pitch was to offer his party as a brake on extremism whether allied with the Tories or Labour.

And then last April Clegg debated UK membership of the EU and lost to Nigel Farage. As a listener I thought Clegg had performed well but Farage projects a highly emotional message to an angry audience unwilling to listen to rational argument. Yet Clegg had the courage to accept the challenge: more than Cameron or Miliband were prepared to risk. Finally during the EU elections, Clegg stood squarely on a pro-EU programme and was punished. Once again, one has to say he had the courage of his convictions. Maybe the case for the EU has swung in the wind these last two decades is because pro EU politicians have lacked the courage to advance a similar case with the required energy.

My guess is that the Lib Dems will still live to fight another day after May next year and that when, as seems likely, we have another hung parliament, Clegg will retain a 'kingmaker' role; for his consistent courage under duress, he will deserve it.

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