Why doing the right thing is no easy task for Nick Clegg
‘Doctor’, urges a much-maligned figure to a less than receptive audience, ‘always do the right thing’.
Spike Lee’s controversial social commentary may seem an unlikely source of inspiration for today’s British politicians, but in truth it is only the minor detail of ‘Da Mayor’ telling a doctor how to act that seems out of place. Boris Johnson wouldn’t dare wade in to the debate on NHS reform.
Last week, though, was not about Government cuts, an eccentric London mayor or, to any significant level, the summer’s riots. It was Nick Clegg’s news cycle to convince his party, as well as the nation, that in entering into the Coalition the Lib Dems had made a choice that was “not easy, but right”.
It was a point he laboured to the extent that the enthusiasm with which he performed the accompanying head shake (not easy) and nod (but right) began to wane long before he had finished.
If the Conference presented an opportunity for Clegg to map out some rhetorical, if not ideological, distance between the Lib Dems and their Coalition partners, then the frequency with which the word ‘right’ featured in his speech indicated a brief but rallying lurch to the centre had been rejected.
The speech was functional and little more, complete with lazy jibe on Labour and the Unions. The Lib Dem’s, their leader proudly declared, are not in anyone’s pockets. We must never, ever, play politics with people’s jobs. He did go on to call for the party to “move now beyond the reflexes of opposition to the responsibilities of government”, but in truth this bore all the hallmarks of stump speeches back when we all agreed with Nick.
The anti-establishment line has worn dangerously thin since the promise of a ‘new politics’. Voters will not easily forget Tuition fees or VAT. What the Lib Dems must hope, for it is surely their only hope of remaining intact, is that by 2015 the electorate can be convinced to forgive such U-turns. That is where Clegg’s emphasis on ‘doing the right, not the easy thing’ comes in.
They had been right on the global economic crisis, proclaimed Clegg, right on the parliamentary expenses scandal and right on the corruption of media ethics.
Integrity, it is said, is doing the right thing when nobody is watching. For years the Lib Dems were a political irrelevance, but in the midst of a crisis in confidence, both economically and politically, many thought they had found a party of integrity.
In returning to what first attracted voters, there remains an opportunity to paint the Lib Dems as that force, despite the strong feelings of betrayal from which some will not return. If the economy recovers, and if Clegg can manipulate a narrative in which, between ‘Right’ and ‘Left’, lies the right, then oblivion can be avoided.
‘Times like these’, explained Clegg ‘are when Liberals are needed most’.
But what then?
With AV rejected so comprehensively in May, Coalition remains the only viable prospect for governing. Unless Ed Miliband can throw off his awkward shackles and begin to make a serious impact, this could well mean turning to the Conservatives once more. But another term as junior partners in a ‘Tory-led’ government would not sit easily with many of those in the audience for Clegg’s keynote speech.
Tim Farron’s own speech was seen by many as ‘throwing his hat into the ring’ for a run at the leadership, while the warning that they must ‘move beyond the reflexes of opposition’ was a clear put down to Farron and others on the left of the party, perhaps even a recently rejuvenated Vince Cable. Clegg may have refuted rumours he would stand down at the next election, but if the party’s left begin to flex their muscles then those stories will not disappear.
For all their aversion to the political right, Liberal Democrats have long been invested with a sense that they were the soothsayers of British politics. In nobody’s pockets, but from upon their high horse, ‘doing the right thing’ has always seemed to come naturally to them. That Clegg now has to convince them is telling in itself. A speech supposed to be dominated by the nation’s children was instead directed at the troublemakers in his own political family.
If the wider public remains fertile ground for a figure that, ahem, fights the power, despite wielding some of it, then his own charges may prove more complicated to win round. There remains an uneasy peace, a reluctant acceptance of the leadership’s strategy.
This time everyone is watching, yet Clegg is still to convince his party they are doing the right thing. That may prove the hardest task.