The Liberal Democrat Party Conference is widely renowned for being one of the least interesting things in the Western world.
Finding yourself watching one of its more crushingly mundane fringe meetings live on BBC Politics of a weekday lunchtime is certainly one of the more bleakly existential experiences you can have sat in front of the TV eating a cheese sandwich.
But like Labour, the Lib Dems are too important to be ignored. And not ignoring them becomes marginally more bearable if you just focus on the relatively interesting leader’s speech over the peripheral waffling.
Clegg is an effective speaker. He manages to be persuasive and interesting to listen to, pleasingly rhetorical in a manner as equally far removed from the forced, bludgeoning New Labour apparatchik-style speech as that of the pompous Tory classicists who think Cicero should be taught at Key Stage 2.
Predictably, he resolutely defended his decision to form the Coalition, and to support its severe austerity programme. He attacked Labour: Miliband and Balls were decried as Labour’s bumbling ‘back room boys’, present when Blair and Brown were ruining the economy and now obstructing the Coalition’s attempts to clear up the mess years later. And he gave a sort of euphemistic half-apology for his much-reviled tuition fee-U Turn – the decision, he said, was ‘heart-wrenching’.
Nick Clegg isn’t a bad man. When his speech concluded with a fairly emotional statement of his belief in equality of opportunity, and desire to end a situation in which ‘prejudice, tradition and class’ squander the talent of the underprivileged, he sounded genuine. Yes, it might also have been a calculated attempt to reassure his party’s left that he’s not gone Blue, you might challenge how he’d go about righting these wrongs, and question how he plans to achieve this by hitching his wagon to the back of a Tory Party apparently determined to finish what Mrs T started, but the underlying belief was unquestionably genuine.
All that said, politically, Clegg is almost a Conservative. The idea peddled by less subtle sections of the Left, that ever since elected Lib Dem leader he’s been slavering in the wings dying for the chance to jump into bed with Cameron, is questionable. But, undeniably, in terms of economics he could easily fit on the Tory front-bench. He was one of the contributors to the Orange Book, a collection of essays by figures on the Lib Dem right that tried to reclaim ‘Liberalism’ from the social democratic Charles Kennedys and Simon Hugheses. It espoused free market solutions to problems arising within the NHS, the prison service, and local government. And of the Lib Dems that have entered government, Vince Cable, David Laws, Chris Huhne are all Orange Bookers.
Clegg is also a Europhile, at a time when the Tories are more solidly, unbendingly Eurosceptic than they have been in recent memory. If you’re looking for the difference between the Tories and the Lib Dems fundamental enough to cause him to leave one and join the other – he was a member of the Conservative Association at university – then Europe’s the likeliest candidate.
And being almost a Tory is not the same as being a Tory in disguise – he’s managed to reconcile his views with the Lib Dem right, and that’s where he’ll stay. It just meant that it was far easier for him to stomach a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition than any of his recent predecessors as Liberal leader.
That historic decision, to break the Hung Parliament deadlock by joining the Conservatives, is what he’ll always be remembered for, and was arguably where he put the long-term interests of his Party before those of the country. By agreeing to prop up Cameron, he sentenced the poorest, most vulnerable people in the country – those he spoke so emotively about trying to help – to even greater disadvantage, as the Welfare State is effectively dismantled around them. The cuts, allegedly, come entirely as a response to financial crisis, but we all know that once they’ve been made they’ll never be reversed, even if the economic situation improves.
From a selfish Lib Dem perspective, you can see why he did it. If the Liberals are ever going to amount to anything more than an easily ignorable parliamentary rump that very occasionally guest-stars in government, they need Proportional Representation. Once achieved, PR would allow them to be a decisive influence in British politics. And given that any electoral reform would have to pass the referendum-test, it’s vital that Clegg tries to get the British public to see coalitions in a positive light.
If they’d refused to prop up Cameron in one way or another – an informal agreement would’ve been far preferable to formal coalition – they’d have been painted as selfish anarchists. The idea of a Rainbow Coalition, in which Labour, the Lib Dems, the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru and Caroline Lucas would join forces, would certainly have pleased the centre-left. But in Britain, First Past The Post-logic is hundreds of years old. To many, too many for Clegg to chance it, it would’ve looked like all the losers ganging up to deny the rightful winners victory. Considering this is exactly what could happen after virtually every election under PR, it would scupper any chance of winning a referendum on it for another generation.
So he joined the Tories, and talks of responsibility, trying to portray himself as putting aside his and Cameron’s political differences for the good of the nation – essentially, trying to show both that Lib Dems are responsible enough for power, and that coalitions can work. With his Party, he falls back on the safe ambiguity of talking about the virtues of being ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ and boasting about what are – apart from removing a million people from income tax, which should’ve been a Labour policy, the fact that it wasn’t showing how far that Party has fallen – relatively paltry Lib Dem achievements in government.
And thus, he’ll continue soaking up the punishment for the Conservatives for the next four years, and, in all probability at the next election, be so unpopular as to be relegated to the Opposition Benches for the next sixty.
Sarah Teather MP, attempting stand-up, a memorable performance that will probably be replacing waterboarding as Guantanamo Bay’s preferred torture method any day now.