In just over two years’ time, with the ashes of a general election gently smouldering in the background, Nick Clegg may look back on February 2013 and allow himself to think ‘this is where it all started going wrong’. The shortest month of the year has given the Deputy Prime Minister a long list of headaches, mostly concerning the action of his own party rather than his erstwhile coalition allies.
Chris Huhne, the man who nearly beat Clegg to the Lib Dem leadership, has been found guilty of perverting the course of justice. As one senior Lib Dem parliamentary figure faces jail, another member of the party top brass, this time a Lord, is being pulled into a separate police investigation. The allegations of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard are still just that, but the Did you know? Didn’t you know? questions that Clegg has been dancing around in the last few days are creepily similar to the questions still shadowing the BBC in the wake of the Jimmy Saville affair. Even if the allegations against Chris Rennard prove to be false, the mere possibility that they were ignored by the party hierarchy is damaging, and will need more than a garbled answer about unspecific allegations and a refusal to give a running commentar’. Aside from the high profile character politics there is also the matter of Britain’s loss of its AAA credit rating, a brewing fight over the welfare system, a symbolic bye-election in Chris Huhne’s old parliamentary seat and, as we approach the half-way point of the Lib-Con era, a policy report card that documents more failures than successes for Nick Clegg’s party.
Of course, if the expected happens and 2015 sees the Lib Dems unceremoniously toppled by the electorate then Clegg would be wrong to cite a few particularly bad weeks in February as the start of the his fall from grace. While recent events may typify the way the Liberal Democrats now operate, lurching from disaster to disaster with occasional bouts of faux-governance in between, it didn’t all start here. Everything first turned sour way back in 2010, when Clegg abandoned the students.
In the halcyon days of 2010 the Lib Dems were champions of the poor, the young and the underrepresented. The heady mix of a new political force (finally) on the rise and a youngish leader who, although not charismatic, was intelligent, presentable and as far removed from the scowling polit bureau-esqu Gordon Brown as possible, was an alluring prospect to the student. I should know: I volunteered for the Lib Dems despite living in a seat as Tory as can be. When the socks and sandals brigade didn’t quite sweep to power there was no gnashing of teeth but, rather, a calm, quiet optimism (a very Liberal type of hope) than in coalition Clegg would be able to steer the Tories to the political middle ground at least. Perhaps, given the unusually balanced nature of Parliament, we might even get some real Lib Dem policies on the environment, welfare and education if Labour came on side.
For a short while this dream seemed plausible; the absence of any real domestic politics in the post-election summer meant that we could do nothing but guess wistfully about what our new Deputy Prime Minister would do. In the end, the first meaningful thing Nick Clegg did was to turn on the group of people who, you could argue, got him elected.
Of course you know all of this already, but in light of the ever decreasing popularity of out Deputy PM, it is worth taking a few short moments to asses just how badly the tuition fee role reversal hurt him and his party.
The most immediate consequence was that it guaranteed that the majority of the ‘youth vote’ will steer clear of the Lib Dems come 2015. There was also the near-endless highlighting of Clegg’s hypocrisy, more than any photo of a politician in recent years, the image of Clegg standing next to a sign pledging not to raise tuition was gold for the opposition; it even lead to a grovelling video apology that did almost as much damage to Clegg’s image.
More seriously it alerted the British voters to the fact that the Lib Dems were not, as they rabidly insisted, equal partners in the coalition and that their leader couldn’t stand up to David Cameron. It was never suggested that the Lib Dems had changed their mind over tuition fees, but rather that they had been forced to change their position. As the physical damage of the student protest was being scrubbed from Parliament square an uncleansable political wound had been dealt to the Liberals in the coalition. No one was going to trust them again.
Since then there has been no Conservative-Liberal Coalition of the willing but rather a ball and chain dynamic, with the Tories wearily dragging the Lib Dems towards 2015 when they can finally be unshackled by the prospect of a Parliamentary majority. There are now less Liberal Democrat MPs in cabinet positions than after the election and, despite the result of the Eastleigh by-election (which was largely fought on local issues the pundits tell us), the Lib Dems are as unelectable as ever. Whatever Cameron offered Clegg in return for his rolling over on tuition fees it wasn’t worth it, because abandoning students was the first stone in the avalanche which has buried the Liberal Democrats alive these past few years and which shows no signs of stopping.