Yesterday’s EP election results were gutting. In fact, I haven’t felt that badly about an election result since 2010, when in the face of poll results telling us we were going to get a hundred-plus seats and “Cleggmania”, we ended up losing five. Even with all of the disappointing democratic results that have followed, including the AV referendum of which I was a part, this one feels the worst. Perhaps it’s because I’m a passionate pro-European and us getting all but wiped out added to UKIP coming first feels terrifying.
Before the European results had even been announced, a group called Lib Dems 4 Change had put out an epetition calling for Nick Clegg’s head. Okay, we’re talking about Lib Dems here, so actually it was a very politely worded letter saying that yes, Nick you’ve been great but could you see your way to standing down, please? You’re wonderful and all of that, but you don’t seem to be getting through to people.
At the spring conference rally in York a couple of months ago, I got a glimpse of a post-Clegg Lib Dems. And it wasn’t a pretty sight. Once could feel the absence of Nick acutely; his gravitas, his ability to communicate our party’s values, his determination to make us a serious party of government. Tim was great, as always, but he was no Nick.
Those who think that by Nick Clegg stepping aside we can simply return to where we were four years and a bit years ago, the party of “a plague on all your houses”, the party of protest against the Westminster elite, is a fantasy. That ship has sailed, with Nigel Farage at the helm. Our hands have been bloodied. From here, we either demonstrate that we can run the country effectively or we will be destroyed. I happen to think, for now, that Nick Clegg is the only person who can pull this off.
To those who think that Vince Cable becoming leader will purify the party, make people listen to what we have to say in an open-minded way, I’d like to remind you of several inconvenient facts. Vince has been the Secretary of State for Business for the last four years. He has been part of this coalition government. Sometimes begrudgingly, but no matter.
If you think just because Labour have made cooing noises at Vince throughout this parliament that this signifies that their attacks on the Lib Dems are simply a reaction against Clegg, I say you have no understanding of the Labour Party or how it operates, and you are being the stereotypical Lib Dem of Labour lore. In other words, you are demonstrating remarkable political naivety. Labour would turn on Vince faster than you could ever believe, getting the Rt Hon Cable right where it hurts: this was the man responsible for the raising of the tuition fees. Unfair in numerous respects, but that would be the line. We would be reminded that Vince was also a Minister in a key government position, someone who signed off austerity measures. Labour are a ruthless party that does what it must to get back into power, just as any party who is one of the big two in what is essentially a two party electoral system has to do to remain that way. They were pleasant to us pre-2010 because we weren’t a threat to them. That will never be the case again, at least so long as we have a chance of denying them anything they want. The narrative on the left is firmly against us, so if you think the lefties would come flocking back to us under Vince, you are living in a dream.
Also, all this talk of Vince’s “Coronation” that has been floated by Lembit amongst others is disturbing in its own right. Since when does someone become the leader of the Liberal Democrats by divine right? There would be a leadership contest, chaps. One that Vince would by no means have in the palm of his hand.
The idea that it’s the messenger and not the message is an appealing one for all Lib Dems, even strong supporters of Nick such as myself. But I don’t think that’s the case, sadly. If I thought everything would improve for us instantly should Nick walk away, even I would be in favour. But again, that isn’t the case. People on the left think we betrayed them for going into government with the Conservatives. Students think we stitched them up over tuition fees. Now, I don’t think either of those things is fair or correct, but that’s what people in those constituencies think. The attacks on Nick are simply a smoke screen most of the time. They would not go away under new leadership.
So we need to go into May 2015 with Nick convincing people that what we’ve done in government was worthwhile. As someone who has not only been there, as Deputy Prime Minister for the whole time, but as the most effective communicator we’ve got. Forget about these Euro elections, hard as it is for all of us – console yourself with the fact that it was never going to be good for us. Anyone could have told you that in 2010. Look instead to the future and our best chance of getting into government again. Which will be under the leader that got us there in the first place.