Clegg’s Trying To Be Left Again

In one of the opening interviews of the new political season, following summer recess, Nick Clegg managed to dumbfound critics and admirers alike by suggesting that, in the interests of fairness, the rich should, in this time of economic crisis, pay a larger amount of tax. On the face of it, Clegg’s move appears to be a bastion of forward thinking in the midst of a government dedicated to conservatism and regressive policies. However, whilst Clegg’s rhetoric is perhaps impressive, his record of action is unmistakeably contradictory and therefore he risks being seen by the electorate as petulant, hypocritical and opportunistic.

Along with raising tuition fees and reorganising the NHS, the coalition government’s move to reduce the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p have cause great unease within an electorate unhappy about the continued wealth of the few at a time of hard-hitting austerity for the many. To the average voter therefore, Clegg’s move appears hugely hypocritical. As deputy PM Clegg sat around a table with the three other members of the coalition’s central quartet, Cameron, Osborne and Danny Alexander, and agreed to a tax cut for those earning the most, to then advocate a tax on wealth comes across as nonsensical.

Furthermore, following a couple of years of sustained Labour-bashing and supporting coalition policy, Clegg finally seems to have woken up to the fact that the only way the Lib Dems are going to retain or gain voters at the next election is to distance his party from their Tory partners. As part of this Clegg has chosen to take advantage of the Labour Party’s popularity by muscling his way into their current ideological sphere and hopefully gain this left ground whilst Ed Miliband is still relatively unpopular. Even Clegg’s rhetoric smacked of that of the Labour leader, with his consistent calls for ‘fairness’ – suddenly a centrepiece of his thinking despite the fact that he has ignored that for the past two years. This is the opportunistic Clegg, seeking to take control of any ground available to ensure the Lib Dems are not left completely floundering when 2015 comes around.

Petulant Clegg appears when we take into account the timing of his rebellion. Until the Tories destroyed Clegg’s plans for reforming the House of Lords the Lib Dem leader was more than happy to cling to Cameron’s coat tails blindly ignoring the fact that the Lib Dems’ popularity was plummeting and the differences that separated them from the Conservatives prior to 2010 were quickly disappearing. Yet, as soon as the Tories upset Nick, he now feels the need to pull the plug on their boundary changes and antagonise Tory backbenchers with proposals to tax the wealthy.  Clegg took the Lib Dems into the coalition claiming to voters that they were doing the mature thing, attaching themselves to opponents in the hopes of making the nation’s finances well again. To enter the coalition with such a ‘mature’ attitude and then drop it at the first sign of opposition shows a certain level of immaturity and petulance.

The importance of Clegg showing off to the electorate all of these qualities is that, despite the positivity of his suggestion, this can only end badly. Firstly, this suggestion has next to no chance of being implemented. The only way I could see this happening would be if Cameron was to replace his old friend Osborne as chancellor (extremely unlikely) and then not only appoint a liberal chancellor but then to get such an anti-conservative policy past an already annoyed Tory party. Second, Clegg’s opportunism and hypocrisy is plain for all to see, neither the electorate, nor the Lib Dem backbenchers will accept this as a placation from a leader who promised to be a friendly face within a coalition, softening Tory blows, something Clegg has failed to be.

The truth is that the only way the Liberal Democrats will retain even a shred of credibility heading into 2015 is if Clegg is replaced by one of the few remaining respected Lib Dems, probably Vince Cable. Clegg certainly needs to be replaced by a social, rather than an economic liberal, and Vince would fit the bill perfectly. Clegg no longer maintains a credible image as a left-wing conspirator inside of an unhealthily and unashamedly right wing regressive coalition. Clegg has alienated himself from voters, his own party and now even the Tory leadership, who will quickly become tired of an unhelpful coalition partner and quickly adopt the view of their backbenchers that the Lib Dems are wielding more power than their small number of MPs should allow.