Coffee House

It’s time to end the Liberal Democrats’ Fish Slapping Dance

7 February 2014

Danny Alexander offers his ‘dead body’ to stop a non-existent tax cut. David Laws accuses Michael Gove of thwarting some imagined plan on school inspectors. Each day seems to bring a fresh attempt at Liberal Democrats finding a new reason to thwack the Conservatives – while the Tories cheerfully take it. Britain’s government is starting to look less like coalition and more like the Fish Slapping Dance from Monty Python (above) and in my Telegraph column today, I ask what the point is.

I’ve come to respect Nick Clegg, and although CoffeeHousers will disagree, I regard him as an unusually decent politician who had wanted to build his opposition-loving rabble into a principled party championing British liberalism. ‘We’ve lost the left-wing half of our party,’ one of his advisers explained to me after the election. ‘They have gone. Like a continental shelf. We’re never getting them back.’ But at least, ran the argument, thanks to this fixed-term parliament act the LibDems had five years to rebuild from the centre. So how did that work out? The graph, below:

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Clegg’s South African strategist has run the figures, and told him this won’t work. His only hope is to do a reverse ferret and try to get that ‘continental shelf’ back. The only chance of keeping the seats is to go on bended knee to win back those voters who defected to Labour. So this means beating up Tories. And picking fights over bizarre issues – the part-time board of Ofsted, whether councils could add a further £7 a year to their local tax. Whether to break a soft-boiled egg at sharp or blunt end. That kind of thing.

You can see the logic. Clegg is in a panic: as Andrew  Adonis observed in his account of coalition negotitions, the Lib Dems are ‘a small party preoccupied with survival.’ The LibDems are not, like the Tories and Labour, an old torchbearer for a school of political thought. The party was created in 1988, predated by Rick Astley’s music career (and he may well outlast them). Like John Major in 1996, Clegg genuinely fears his party may collapse. So I, for one, can understand his Tory-baiting strategy. And what Tory wouldn’t wish Clegg well in stealing votes back from Labour? If he gets his vote back to what it was, Cameron will walk back into Downing St in 2015.

But having decided on this Tory-baiting strategy, I think time has come for Clegg to do the decent thing, and pursue this strategy in opposition – from the back benches. He has many achievements in government from which to be proud. Ideally, he intended to pursue this Liberal thing up to the end – and that meant fighting the election in 2015 boasting about things like school reform, and unclenching the fist of local authorities in a truly liberal way.

It’s sad, seeing Lib Dems pretend they are now against the school reforms that they were so instrumental in delivering  – all because they have concluded that they do, after all, need the votes of students, lecturers and the local authorities. They are disowning their achievements in hope of reclaiming their old voters. Hence the contortions.

So Danny Alexander, who I admire, now has to pretend that keeping the top rate of tax at 47 per cent is an ‘over my dead body’ issue. A shame: he’s too sensible, too economically literate, to genuinely hold that view. I had come around to the idea of genuine shared liberal common ground between the Liberals and Tories – embodied by energetic, intelligent and liberal politicians like Jeremy Browne, David Laws, Danny Alexander and Clegg himself.

But Clegg couldn’t find any votes there, and now is in a panic trying to make the LibDems into the Party that Lands More Punches on Cameron than Miliband. He is bring driven to this position by the exigencies of the time. But let him adopt this position from the back benches. It would be better for everyone. The longer things continue as they are, the more tempted Cameron will be to bring out his big fish, thwack his deputy and bring this sorry sketch to a close.

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  • Smithersjones2013

    And what Tory wouldn’t wish Clegg well in stealing votes back from
    Labour? If he gets his vote back to what it was, Cameron will walk back
    into Downing St in 2015.

    As ever the Tories cannot see further than their nose when it comes to political strategy. Putting aside the reality that if the Tories are to have any chance of retaining power they are almost certainly going to have to win tens of Libdem seats, from a purely partisan perspective it is always better to see one of your opponents removed from the board (and therefore you no longer have to worry about them) than it is to perpetuate them in the deluded belief it might do you less damage in the short term. The Libdems and their predecessors have done far too much damage to the Tory party already (much of it purely as a result of three party politics) for Tories to seriously believe their presence is an advantage.

    Not only that one only has to consider when and therefore why the voters left the Libdems in their droves to realise whatever absurd stunts Clegg attempts is not going to bring them back in large numbers.

    The fact that almost all their vote loss (half their 2010 support) occurred within the first three months of the Coalition even before Clegg’s Tuition Fees betrayal tells you all you need to know. The very idea of the Libdems cosying up to the Tories was a betrayal too far for many former Labour voters who had deserted Blair for the Libdems over Afghanistan, Iraq and the numerous other neo-conservative actions of his government. Blair’s gone. Iraq’s over and Afghanistan is winding up. All that is left is the sense of betrayal perpetrated by Clegg. Nothing Clegg and others can do is going to make up for that.

    That the Tories sit their allowing pot shots to be taken at them just makes them look weak and politically impotent and given Tory eagerness to take (derisory) pot shots at UKIP it raises questions about the true beliefs of the Tory Party under Cameron. For many such behaviour enforces the image of the Tories being duplicitous and untrustworthy.

    Furthermore, allowing the Libdems to remain in an impotent Government that for all intents and purposes has come to an end and dragging it out for another 15 months only undermines the institution of Government, the concept of Parliamentary democracy and debases the little reputation both Tories and Libdems have left as it gives the impression of two parties clinging to power just for the sake of it. If they cannot wield the power they grabbed for themselves (no one voted for a Coalition) then they should do the decent thing and let the people decide and stop this pretense of a government!

    On the plus side this lunatic attempt to pretend this dysfunctional government still has something to offer will probably ensure that the electorate will resile from the idea of Coalition for a generation to come and if by happenstance Miliband’s misfits are forced into one with the Libdems in 2015, then all the better because I cannot think of two parties who deserve to be undermined by such an anti-democratic construct as Labour and Libdem parties.

  • ButcombeMan

    I feel sorry for Danny, he was doing so well.

  • HY

    More charades, Fraser? It’s time to end the pretence there is any substantial difference between Lib, Lab or Con on any of the major issues affecting the lives of “ordinary hardworking people,” as the drones of the Westminster hive like to call us. There might as well be a grand coalition for all the difference that it would make.

  • HJ777

    This is just another demonstration of the fact that there is no one home for what were once called Whigs any more. They are spread across a section of the Tory party (their traditional political enemies) and the LibDems (for example, Orange bookers) where they are allied with Social Democrats, and they have long been squeezed (crushed?) from the other direction by socialists (the Labour Party).

    This has long been a great pity, of course. If only the Labour Party and the nonsense of socialism had never existed we could have a proper Whig/Liberal party.

  • monty61

    It really doesn’t matter what Clegg & co do from here, a judgment has been formed of them and the party is toast for the foreseeable. And good riddance.

    • Denis_Cooper

      I’d join you in saying good riddance to the LibDems.
      But even if the LibDem party disappeared the 24% of voters who supported them in 2010 wouldn’t disappear, and so far of the 14% who have moved away from supporting them 11% have switched to Labour.
      So in order of importance the three main obstacles to the Tory party getting an overall majority at the next election appear to be:
      1. Consolidation of the conventional leftish anti-Tory vote on Labour, 11%.
      2. Failure to get the boundary changes, 6%.
      3. Net effect of intervention of UKIP, 2%.

  • @PhilKean1

    “I had come around to the idea of genuine shared liberal common ground between the Liberals and Tories”

    Yes, Fraser, I had noticed. To my frustration and disappointment, I find it baffling that someone as intelligent and politically-aware as yourself can arrive at so many wrong conclusions.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Something weird about that graph you are using. It prevents scrolling.

    • Andy

      File is too big. Our Fraser hasn’t rescaled it !

    • Denis_Cooper

      The four charts here are better, the same information plus much more:

      Like, it shows the red line going up as well as the yellow line going down.

    • Makroon

      It’s not a poll, it’s You bloody Gov !

  • kyalami

    Clegg is also desperately hoping for a LibLab coalition which might well happen if Labour did not quite get a majority.

    It’s a pity because, as Fraser says towards the end of his penultimate paragraph, liberalism has a lot to offer. Sadly politics too often gets in the way.

  • anyfool

    The only thing the Lib Dems had any hope for at the next election would have been the economic recovery, it looks obvious to anyone that their actions in government in preventing bigger cuts, has actually slowed what recovery there has been.
    Their only hope is not students and lefty middle class public sector drones, they have gone home to suckle on the teats of Labours magic money man, they have to appeal to Labour voters who have been shafted in favour of imported cheap labour, that would require a more nation based party, but like the others they are seduced by European nonsense, in short they are stuffed, UKIP has blocked that avenue.
    Goodbye Clegg, the black spot is on you.

  • Denis_Cooper

    So it has finally dawned that the collapse of LibDem support has not been something for Tories to celebrate, because it has been very much more to the benefit of Labour than the Tories, and:

    “… what Tory wouldn’t wish Clegg well in stealing votes back from Labour? If he gets his vote back to what it was, Cameron will walk back into Downing St in 2015.”

    Well, maybe as the Prime Minister of another coalition, because when the LibDems had 24% support at the 2010 general election and the Tories had 37% and Labour had 30% the outcome was a hung Parliament, and that was with UKIP on only 3%:

    And because the LibDems blocked the boundary changes that the Tories wanted the latter still have to be well ahead of Labour to have a chance of getting an overall majority – the proposed boundary changes were usually said to worth about 6% to the Tories vis-a-vis Labour.

    But now it is more complicated because UKIP is polling about 14% not 3%, and although the extent to which the rise of UKIP disadvantages the Tories vis-à-vis Labour is greatly exaggerated it’s probably still worth maybe 2% extra to Labour.

    So put these numbers in the Electoral Calculus prediction facility:

    Tory 33%
    Labour 28%
    LibDems 24%

    leaving room for UKIP to still get 14%, and it would be another hung Parliament and most probably a Labour-LibDem coalition government.

    • BarkingAtTreehuggers

      The error occurs when assuming LD at 24%. Run it without that (and with a reduced influence from Scotland) and what do you get?
      A Tory/UKIP coalition provided the Conservative Party retreats in areas in which it would split the UKIP vote.

      • Denis_Cooper

        It’s back to 24% because that was Fraser Nelson’s hypothesis:

        “If he gets his vote back to what it was”.

        • BarkingAtTreehuggers

          Ok, I can follow. Yet I would question that rationale.

  • DavidL

    If Clegg’s advisers are telling him he can have his cake and eat it, by remaining in the Coalition whilst opposing the Conservatives, then his most urgent task is to sack his advisers and find better ones. The voters – us lot outside the bubble – will give him no credit at all for such duplicity. Either he defends the Coalition, for all its faults and disagreements, or he declares it a dead parrot and walks away.

    • RavenRandom

      Agreed. You cannot be the opposition and party of govt both. To rail against the government whilst being part of it is duplicitous. But then that’s all the Lib Dems seem to be these days. Holding to principal would have served them better.
      If the whole party goes the full Vince Cable then they might as well slope off.

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