Having just given Nick Clegg two cheers (see previous post) I can hardly join the silly season clamour for ditching him. I agree that the party's performance in government has been somewhat accident-prone, to put it as kindly as possible. But the faults are shared ones, for which Clegg has received a disproportionate amount of opprobrium which, as Paddy Ashdown has pointed out , Clegg has borne with "a grace under fire that should make us proud."
I cannot accept, however, Ashdown's modest assertion that "It is the job of our (Liberal Democrat) leader to take us into government. I (Ashdown) failed : Nick has succeeded." It is a nonsense to attribute a party's success, or failure, solely or even mainly to the leader. It is, after all, highly questionable that we Liberal Democrats achieved much of a success in 2010. We gained a !% share of the vote (from 22 to 23%) but our number of seats won fell from 62 to 57.
Not much of a success. But again the fault must be shared. Indeed Nick's contribution was outstanding in that, as a result of his performance in the first leaders' debate, he gained for us, for the first time in in my half century of political campaigning, a decent hearing. It was not entirely his fault that, when our policies were subject to detailed scrutiny, so many of them fell apart.
Then many of our embarrassments (student fees, our failure to gain electoral reform or a democratic second chamber) have arisen through the failure of our coalition negotiating team , including such allegedly bright sparks as David Laws and Danny Alexander, to study the small print and spot that an option to abstain from a vote to raise student fees was not sufficient for a party that had so publicly pledged to vote against such a measure, and that Tory promises to introduce measures for electoral and House of Lords reform were not quite the same as an undertaking to vote for them. They were, in other words, taken for a ride. The student fees debacle was compounded by the refusal of the party apparatchiks to allow a debate on the issue in the special conference which approved the coalition.
Yes, I suppose that Clegg went along with these things, but he and we foot soldiers were and are badly let down by his top team and advisers.
One of the ways of avoiding similar problems in the future would be to ditch the convention that, after a defeat in a general election, the PM should walk out of No 10 that very day by the back door, and the new one walk in through the front, or as soon as possible thereafter. An interim period of, say, 10 days, would save many misunderstandings and give time for proper reflection and analysis of whatever is on the table. We should press for this for the future. Negotiations with Labour could be equally tricky and not entirely honest .
Along with the flawed coalition negotiations, what seems to have happened over that hectic weekend is that the Treasury and Bank of England bounced not only Clegg, but also his economic heavyweights, including St Vincent de Cable and Danny Alexander, into believing that "the markets" demanded both the rapid formation of a new government and a policy of urgent deficit reduction, or we should go the way of Greece. Both these ideas were nonsense at the time and have proved to be so since. Thus our sensible, even if a little half hearted, pre-election Keynesian policy of, yes, deficit reduction, but gradually and when growth (which was actually happening at the time) has become assured, was abandoned,. Instead we became stuck with Osborne's cuts policy into which we appear still to be locked, in spite of all the accumulating evidence of its failure.
The biggest mistake of all was Clegg's instance that the Liberal Democrats should "own," and indeed publicly support, all the policies of the coalition, not just the ones of which we approved. This has lead us into joining in the lie that we must "clear up the mess left by Labour" and his embarrassing hug of Osborne after that first budget which went against all the beliefs and traditions of the party of Keynes and Beveridge. I believe Clegg has now learned from the latter, but, alas, clearing up " the mess left by Labour" still appears on the party website - this from the party that promised more honesty in politics.
What is needed in my view is not the distraction a change of leader (as indicated above, the leading alternative, Cable, is as much responsible for the major error on the economy anyone else) but a change of style, in that we publicise the many Liberal advances the coalition has achieved and dissociate ourselves as far as possible from the measures, especially on the economy, which are patently wrong.
And never cease reminding the electorate that the Tories have 306 MPs and we have only 57, so they have the whip hand (both literally and figuratively) and it is very difficult for our modest tail to change the direction of the dog.