Remorse and retrenchment
The big story from the Liberal Democrat conference is Nick Cleggs apology for raising student fees - but his party is as wedded to the Tories as ever, argues Paul Demarty
It is a common misconception of Catholicism that one can commit all the sins one likes - venal, mortal or whatever - and, so long as one presents a penitent countenance in the confession box, the Lord God will be appeased.
The small print points out, of course, that remorse has to be genuine. The Almighty is likely to twig, in the case of repeat offenders, that he is being taken for a ride. Nick Clegg, we must conclude, does not have the makings of a good Catholic.
Public discourse on the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton has centred on Clegg’s apology for conspiring to raise university tuition fees, in direct contradiction to his party’s promises in the run-up to the 2010 general election. It has been lauded, mocked and - inevitably - given a YouTube autotune ‘remix’ (not as slick as some of them, it must be said).
Almost nothing in his little piece to camera is new: we have already had the ‘It was a mistake to make promises that we didn’t know we’d be able to keep’ line trotted out several times by Clegg, Vince Cable and their flunkies. The only new element is the word ‘sorry’, which - given the brazen dishonesty of the general line - is somewhat hard to credit. Clegg’s apology to students amounts to saying he got a better offer. It was pointed out repeatedly at the time that Clegg’s argument was akin to that of a notional thoughtless lover: ‘Yes, darling, I know I promised to take you to the movies, but at that time I didn’t know the boys would be going to the pub to watch the football.’
That better offer was the prestige and power of office - in an organisation as congenitally opportunistic as the Liberal Democrats, quite an incentive. Students are not stupid: they, like god, know when they are being had. And Clegg’s apology has, if anything, inflamed resentment - an NUS poll suggests that less than 8% of students would vote Lib Dem - way behind Labour and the Tories, and also lagging behind the Greens.
His student mea culpa may have been met with derision, but Clegg’s message to his faithful flock has gone over better. This is clear enough not so much from what has taken place in Brighton, but what has not - there has been no sign of a rebellion beyond the usual griping from backbenchers and other marginal figures.
Partly this is due to the usual party conference hot air. Both Clegg and Cable have been fulsome in their condemnation of Andrew Mitchell, the Tory chief whip, who verbally abused police officers at Downing Street after they refused to open the main gates to let him out on his bike, directing him instead to the pedestrian exit. Worse even than the pettiness of the dispute, the content of the abuse was fairly clearly directed at the luckless coppers’ less privileged class background - “Best you learn your fucking place,” he ranted, according to the police report. “You don’t run this fucking government ... You’re fucking plebs” (eloquence such as that, naturally, can only be learned at Rugby School).
In the first couple of days, you could be forgiven for thinking that the events in Brighton were some sort of school in etiquette, rather than a political conference. Cable was in a particularly good position, having been a grammar school boy himself - and thus a fully certified ‘pleb’ by British establishment standards.
Yet this is easy money for the embattled Lib Dems. In order to keep the ranks disciplined, it is more and more necessary to find answers to the question, ‘So why don’t we just go and join the Tories?’ Mitchell’s astonishing outburst was a gift to Lib Dem ministers from the Bullingdon Club. Clegg and Cable snatched onto it like drowning men onto a mouldy bit of driftwood.
Apart from that, there was a lot of insubstantial mood music. Clegg argued that deficit reduction must surely target the rich as well as the poor in the form of taxation; the hue and cry raised over that makes it clear that the notion is unacceptable to his coalition partners. Vince Cable’s speech nodded in the direction of a Keynesian approach, some version of which is increasingly favoured by the financial cognoscenti (the Financial Times is glowing in its assessments of Cable’s talents).
Cable, it should be conceded, has gotten out relatively clean from all this. He was even more directly involved in the tuition fees reverse-ferret, in his position at the department for business, innovation and skills, but Clegg has taken the lion’s share of the flak. On the other hand, his stated and frustrated intention - rumbled by undercover journalists - of declaring war on Rupert Murdoch’s bid for total control of BSkyB looks less like an embarrassing gaffe and more like prescience. This fits into his carefully cultivated image as an intelligent man of principle. Indeed, some polls suggest that replacing Clegg with Cable at the helm of the Lib Dems would put five percentage points on the party’s poll ratings overnight.
Yet all this stuff is basically empty, because in the first instance the Lib Dems are committed to a formally unified economic policy with the Tories down to 2014, with an option to renew. Senior Lib Dems concede that this deal will last the lifetime of the parliament (beyond that, they are more cagey, but a lot can happen in three years). Cable can huff and puff about stimulus all he likes: inasmuch as he is committed to loyally carrying out policy decided by George Osborne at No11, it is all moot.
Any attempt to mould that policy faces a bigger problem: Clegg and Cable are simply in no position to make demands on the Tories. To torpedo important legislation - particularly economic policy - would in effect be to destroy the coalition. If the coalition dies, certainly at the present time, so do the Liberal Democrats. David Cameron has expertly used Clegg and co as a meat shield against public opprobrium. There is every chance that they will be beaten at next year’s Euro elections by Ukip; to trigger a general election in the immediate term carries the real risk of completely decimating the yellow benches in the House of Commons.
Osborne has no interest in giving his partners more leverage than strictly necessary to maintain Lib Dem morale at a level sufficient and stop them splitting the coalition. Frankly, he faces more serious problems to his right; the Thatcherite hardliners are perpetually unhappy at the chancellor’s timidity in grinding working class living standards down to the desired level, and the reactionary-religious sections of his party are hardly happy with the concessions given to Clegg on ‘social issues’. Cameron and Osborne have consistently attempted to play these two forces - the Tory right and the Lib Dems - off against each other. However fraught things sometimes look, it must be conceded that they have done a relatively good job of it so far.
Perversely, this almost plays into the hands of Clegg and Cable. These are people from what used to be called the ‘Orange Book’ wing of the Liberal Democrats - thoroughly committed to Thatcherism. Their programme is in reality far closer to Osborne’s than they would like to admit. Occasional bust-ups over ‘constitutional’ issues (the recent farrago over House of Lords reform being one example) aside, their natural home is the Conservative Party. Cameron, all things being equal, will be happy to welcome them in - formally or de facto - when the time is clement to do so.
Making predictions in politics is a dangerous business, but still it is difficult to see the Lib Dems surviving as a substantial third party, in their current form, after the next election. On the one side, there is the possibility of a split, which sends Clegg and co into the Tories, while the rump go gentle into that good night. On the other, there is the complete electoral obliteration of the Lib Dems. If Clegg manages to steer a safe course through these waters, we will have to revise our opinion of him and declare him a master statesman.
He certainly does not cut that kind of figure just now. Indeed, whether even the patronage of the Conservatives will be enough to save Clegg’s skin as an individual is not certain. This man, it must always be remembered, is hated. He is hated because he looks exactly like what he is - a smug, treacherous turncoat, whose patronising, nice-guy facade is simply not enough any more to hide behind.
In a way, he is guilty of the same sin as Andrew Mitchell. It is all very well to be brought up with absolute contempt for the masses - and to marry that contempt with the vocabulary of Malcolm Tucker - but the “plebs” absolutely must not find out. Likewise, total opportunism is a useful selective trait in the primordial swamp of bourgeois politics; but only on condition that it is hidden from the masses. The more Nick Clegg says sorry, the less people believe him.