The worst thing that can happen to a gambler is a big win on their first flutter. From then on, they’re hooked on an unrealistic vision of their own good luck, or freakish genius – and thus become prone to lose badly.
Nick Clegg is that gambler, blowing on the dice while reciting a mantra about higher taxes and the value of the ECHR. Already, his party’s somewhat forlorn conference has been stuffed full of demands and red lines for a new Coalition deal – as today’s Mail says, it’s quite a bold thing to do, when you’re polling at a mere six per cent.
So where does this overconfidence come from? Well, that first bet paid off – fortunately for him in the short term, and ruinously thereafter. Having found himself with the balance of power in 2010’s hung parliament, the Lib Dem leader rolled the dice, issued his demands and found a Conservative leadership willing to strike a more generous deal than he deserved.
Having pocketed his jackpot – a disproportionate share of Cabinet seats, a ludicrous AV referendum, an effective veto on EU and green matters as well as a variety of other perks – he’s convinced he can repeat the trick again. Today we’re told that there can be no move away from the ECHR, that an in/out EU referendum might be on the cards for “a heavy price”, that taxes must rise et cetera et cetera.
But he’s overplaying his hand, and now we know his tells.
For a start, his own position is weaker this time round – there will be no Cleggmania in 2015, no moment when the electorate suddenly ‘discover’ him or when voters flock to his banner. He and his party are well-known and widely disliked on both sides of politics.
Second, it’s hard to perform the same con twice. He was fortunate to have a team (particularly David Laws) who were better at their first ever coalition negotiation than their Conservative counterparts – and they deployed a bold bluff about striking a deal with Labour. In 2015, should there be another hung parliament, the Conservative side of the table intends to drive a harder bargain and will be less easily hoodwinked.
Third, in that grim scenario any agreement hammered out behind closed doors won’t be agreed there. It would have to satisfy more than just the Conservative leadership. We know that the Parliamentary party will get a vote on any new deal – and, sick as many of them are of our whining sidekicks, they will not be easily pleased. In this site’s view the Conservative party’s grassroots members should also be given a vote on it – a condition for which we will continue to press. Either or both confirmatory ballots will pose a much bigger challenge than Clegg faced in 2010.
It’s all very well to stand on a stage in Glasgow and tell your (remaining) supporters exactly what a tough bargain you will drive. But if the players do need to gather round the green baize next year – and pray God they don’t – then Clegg may find his early run of luck was just that. And it has run out.