In years to come, when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sits down with his ghost writer to pen his memoir reflecting on his time in power, he will undoubtedly remember the past few days. Its the kitchen sink moment, the hanging out the washing line reflection; the realisation that the marriage is over and there is nothing more you can do.
The people around him have known for a while, there are already rumbling over a potential leadership challenge from the left wing of the party led by Vince Cable. Given the way the Lib Dems have seemed to shed its leader every few years since the resignation of Charles Kennedy in 2006, Nick Clegg has done well to survive at the helm, especially since the beginning of the coalition in 2010.
The question is however, not how he survived this long, its whether he’ll survive in future. The ever controversial Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who has never shy about her contempt for the so-called ‘Posh boys’ of Westminster, said he and his counterpart David Cameron probably won’t last until the next election. However, this is probably premature as the Coalition is still unlikely to fall for at least another year or so.
The only thing that has died is any notion that this government is anything more than a marriage of convenience that is only sustained by the fear of reprisal from the masses in the event of an early election. Of course, this comes as no surprise to the majority of the country but the Cabinet can no longer pretend to play happy families when husband and wife are so openly attacking each other.
Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem ministers’ threatened revolt over boundary changes that would favour a would be Conservative MP is reminiscent of a wounded animal striking out fruitlessly in the hope of doing some damage. They stand to gain little from their revolt, this act will do little to regain the public’s respect or indeed trust, and will only destroy what little tolerance the Conservative back bench have left for them.
Clegg’s little act of spite will no doubt be an attempt to win back a small part of the respect of his party and prove himself as more than just Cameron’s lap dog. Whether or not it’ll do anything to earn back his party’s trust remains to be seen, but he still has a long way to go before he can hope to start earning the country’s forgiveness.
So what serious change will come about in both parties as a result of their respective scheming this week? Although Cameron’s failure to fight for Lords Reform has demonstrated he’s afraid of his own back bench which will do him no good when he tries to push through any more progressive legislation (a notable example being the Marriage Equality Act)designed to modernise the party’s image, he is not likely to face a leadership challenge. Whilst he may not be popular within his own party, their only remotely popular figure with the public is currently running London.
Furthermore, for all his faults, Cameron’s position on the Left of the party (relatively speaking) is what enabled them to (almost) get back into power in 2010. The years in the wilderness during the glory days of New Labour were compounded by the view that the Conservative party, and its then leaders; William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, were stuck in the mud and often just plain old. The ‘Soft Tory’ brand created by Cameron after his election to Party Leader in 2005 detoxified the Conservatives’ image as the party that helped Thatcher run amok in the eighties, the party of privilege and ducks houses, the party that favours the old and rich over the young and poor.
Cameron may not have been able to win them an election, but they still need him to prevent them from a crushing defeat.
So what about Cameron’s partner-in-crime? Clegg has fallen a long way since his brief (and more than a little premature, I thought, even at the time) crowning as the ‘British Obama’ by the Guardian back during the election campaign. From his position now as the biggest turn coat in British politics many would presume that his position is under threat from the increasingly mutinous members of his own party. However he is still likely to hang on till the next election simply because no other major politician is going to want to become the face of the coalition and man the sinking ship. Whatever happens, the Liberal Democrats are still likely to be crucified at the next election so the ordinary members will be looking to their own position. They hope they can convince their constituents that they are different from their party by making as much as noise as possible now and hoping things get a bit better if they wait until May 2015.
The biggest danger Clegg wants to look for is that the more left leaning Lib Dems that may even resort to crossing the floor and becoming part of the Labour party. Although this is a drastic measure, (the last Lib Dem MP to do was Paul Marsden in 2005 who returned to Labour having left in 2001 over the war in Afghanistan) because it means you sacrifice your local party base in your local constituency (those in safe seats wouldn’t dream of it for instance) but for those facing a challenge from Labour, especially in the student constituencies, it may be worth the risk. Clegg has to be careful of losing its MPs to the other side of the floor because every MP lost is a chip away at the slim majority the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats share. If one or two Lib Dems desert, Cameron may view it as a wave and see no point remaining in a harmful coalition when it can’t even guarantee him a majority.
Currently both Conservative and Liberal Democrats cards are balancing against each other, it only takes one to fall and the whole house of cards grumbles.