Saturday, May 14, 2011

The gamble that paid off

And so the problems continue to pile up for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.

First it was the local elections and the loss of 700 council seats, then the overwhelming referendum 'no' vote to electoral reform, now the finding of 'serious breaches of the rules' in relation to rising star David Laws' expense claims.

And it's not over yet. There are serious question marks over the future of another of the party's leading lights, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, following claims by his ex-wife that he asked someone else to take some penalty points for a speeding offence.

The allegations have been denied, but with further revelations expected in tomorrow's Sunday papers, some Westminster observers are rating Mr Huhne's survival chances as "less than 10pc."

Is this what happens when a party that has been out of power for the best part of a century finds itself struggling to adapt to its new responsibilities, or is it simply a run of bad luck?

Either way, it was hardly surprising that Mr Clegg should have sought to reassert his party's influence in government this week, with the government's NHS reforms likely to be the new battleground between the Coalition partners.

Mr Clegg at least has public opinion on his side as far as that one is concerned , but the harsh reality is that he dare not push the Tories too far.

If he gets too big for his boots, Prime Minister David Cameron can simply threaten him with a general election which would in all likelihood delivery a Conservative majority and a Lib Dem wipeout.

For all the initial focus on the council election carnage, it is the AV referendum result that will hit the Lib Dems hardest, setting back for at least a decade the cause of electoral reform that is closest to the hearts.

With the benefit of hindsight, the whole thing now looks like a car crash waiting to happen.

As one pundit put it: "Here is a referendum recipe for disaster. Choose an issue that no one cares about, get the most unpopular man in Britain to champion it, and hold it on a day when everyone will use it to kick the most unpopular man in Britain."

Yet it's too simplistic to blame the failure of AV entirely on Mr Clegg, and in any case the outlook at the start of the campaign looked very different, with the 'yes' camp seemingly comfortably in the lead.

In this and other respects, the referendum reminded me of the one that took place in the autumn of 2004 on whether the North-East should have an elected assembly.

On that occasion, too, the 'yes' camp seemed to have a fair wind to start with, but lost the initiative once people started to take a closer look at exactly what was on offer.

Just as the people of the North-East might have supported a less lily-livered version of regional government than the one actually put before them, so the UK public might have supported a genuine form of proportional representation given the opportunity.

Instead, they were offered what appeared to many as a non-choice between the status quo and the 'miserable little compromise' – Nick Clegg's words -that was AV.

In the days following the general election last May, there was a perception that Nick Clegg had emerged as the big winner of a contest that seemed initially to have produced only losers.

If I'm honest, I may have bought into some of that myself, but the result of the AV referendum forces us to revise that view of history.

The truth is that Mr Cameron's great gamble of offering the Lib Dems a referendum on the voting system in return for handing him the keys to Number 10 Downing Street has handsomely paid off.

Twelve months on, the Conservative leader has finally proved himself the real election victor.

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Anonymous said...

Clegg is a convenient sideshow to take the spotlight of Red,but sooner or later it will be back on his disastrous attempt at trying to lead the Labour party.

The deficit denier bit isn't working,nor is the oppose everything strategy, as was clearly shown on 5th May.

Labour has ended up with a leader their MP's didn't want and Red has ended up with a talent free front bench.

Maybe Labour will now look seriously at how they elect their leader and how their front bench is chosen when they are in opposition.

G Eagle Esq said...

"... so the UK public might have supported a genuine form of proportional representation given the opportunity....."

or Perhaps not

G Eagle Esq said...

"..... Mr Cameron's great gamble of offering the Lib Dems a referendum ... has handsomely paid off"

Or perhaps Not

The night is young and chickens are coming home to roost

It will be interesting to see whether -- or rather how high -- unEmployment & inflation rise, as :

1. an Over-Valued Pound falls against the Euro


2. The State Sector sheds so many Jobs

James Higham said...

The interesting thing is the scenario, a very real one methinks, in which the coalition comes unstuck and Red Ed is forced into coalition with the Lib Dems, possibly minus Clegg.