Lib Dems need to stake out their own territory

Published in the Financial Times (August 24th, 2011)

One of the many twists to have occurred in British politics since the election is that the most eagerly anticipated party conference next month is that of the Liberal Democrats. Usually it is little more than the warm-up show for the two bigger parties, but not this year: the media will pour into Liverpool in hope of a grassroots revolt against Nick Clegg.

The party is in a jumpy mood, with dwindling support, concern over planned cuts and excitable talk of defections over the weekend. Charles Kennedy took a long time to deny that he was quitting the party, while Baroness Tonge admitted to “chats” with Labour (although in truth, her defection could be viewed as a bonus). Dissent will grow as the spending cuts take shape this autumn, especially in Scotland and the inner cities.

Mr Clegg is coming in for heavy fire. But for all his presentational errors, Mr Clegg has used limited political space with some skill and deserves more credit. Despite a disappointing election result he played a strong hand in the coalition talks, returning his party to government after nearly seven decades, putting electoral reform at the heart of the political agenda and winning support for key policies from his manifesto. Since then, he has held his fractious party together while giving just enough room to his critics. Indeed, when coalition backbenchers compare notes in Westminster, disgruntled Tory MPs are jealous of their new-found friends’ freedom to speak out against the party line.

Much of the trouble is being stirred up by the Labour party, encouraging talk of defections and making endless jibes against those that spurned its advances. It is short-term politics, for in the process the opposition reveals its own conservatism as it struggles to come to terms with coalition politics. The electorate clearly wanted a Tory government held in check by the Lib Dems and has warmed to the idea of politicians working together, especially amid severe economic squalls.

The Conservative party has displayed its traditional pragmatism and rapidly adjusted to the new political landscape. Inside Downing Street, in the early days of the coalition, there were comical scenes as gatherings of Tory ministers and advisers refused to start meetings without one of their coalition partners present. “Quick, go and fetch a Lib Dem,” a junior participant would be told.

It was astonishing how little contact there was across the political divide before the two parties were forced into bed together. But many members of David Cameron’s inner circle have found they enjoy working with the Lib Dems. This is not just because their former opponents provide cover both for the savage cuts and the radical programme of public-sector reforms; it is also because they find themselves agreeing on many issues.

There is, however, surprise that the Lib Dems are not pushing harder in areas where there is room for manoeuvre within the coalition agreement. One senior Tory said he was amazed at how little the Lib Dems fought their corner in meetings, thereby failing to offer sufficient counterweight to the right. He was disappointed by their caution.

This is a marked contrast to the third grouping in the coalition – the Tory right – which has quickly adapted to the new terrain. They understand there are times to fight hard, as we have seen this weekend with stories of rows between Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne over the cost of welfare reform, and previously saw with Liam Fox over defence spending. Mr Fox is on substantially weaker ground, however, given the profligacy and inefficiency of the Ministry of Defence.

As he prepares for his conference, Mr Clegg is in a lonely position. He does not deserve the opprobrium being hurled his way. But he needs to worry less about the role of deputy prime minister and more about finding issues that he and his party can proclaim as their own. He tried last week with a speech on social mobility but it could easily have come from Mr Cameron and, besides, it takes decades to measure the success of reforms in this area.

If he fails to carve out his own distinct territory, we will be left with a curious conundrum: the party that has long advocated a new political order will emerge as the least adept at adapting to the intriguing new world of coalition politics.

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