Okay, the picture to the right may be slightly overdoing it — but I still think that Nick Clegg deserves some defence from his critics. They’re at it again today, from all sides, after yesterday’s hasty proposal for a new wealth tax. The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail both contain particularly virulent editorials attacking, respectively, the Deputy Prime Minister’s “immature and irresponsible” politics and his “vacuous proposal”. The Guardian’s Martin Kettle describes him as a “loser”, while Kevin Maguire has him down as “Cameron’s nodding dog”. But few of them top Iain Martin’s column for the Telegraph, which identifies Mr Clegg as a “man of towering political intelligence,” but — er — not in a sincere way.
Why do I think that the Lib Dem leader deserves defending from this onslaught? Partially because I’m feeling charitable today, but mainly because he’s a better politician than these insults would have you believe. I’ve written in praise of him before, at my former stable, but here — by way of a very brief recap — are what I now regard as the three main reasons to show him a bit of respect:
1) He drastically remoulded his party’s offering. Could the Liberal Democrats have entered into coalition with the Conservatives under the leadership of Ming Campbell or of
Charles Kennedy? Probably not. Before Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems were comfortably a party of the centre-left, big on spending and fairly big on tax. But as soon as he ascended to his party’s throne they started shifting towards the centre-right. The message on tax, at least for low- and middle-income earners, was to decrease it; the message on borrowing was to restrain it; they started talking about reform, particularly in the areas of welfare and education. By the time the election came around, there were significant areas of overlap between Mr Clegg’s offering and David Cameron’s. The Liberal Democrat leader noticed what others before him hadn’t: that the Lib Dems are a particularly malleable party — and he shaped them accordingly.
2) He has backed spending cuts — even before others did. As the Coalition wavers, the Lib Dem leadership’s commitment to deficit reduction, and the broad sweep of the spending cuts, remains firm. As this is the government’s biggest task, we ought to be thankful for that. The markets and Westminster would quiver and crumble were it otherwise. But we also shouldn’t be surprised that this how things have panned out. Under Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems have been attacking excessive borrowing and pushing spending cuts for quite some time now. As far back as November 2008, he chided Gordon Brown’s fiscal proposals for being “funded through borrowing, the money will have to be paid back later”. In February 2009, he talked of an “age of austerity,” and identified some cuts that the Lib Dems would implement. And the first time that George Osborne properly mentioned spending cuts? June 2009 (£). Even now, the Liberal Democrat leader is ahead of most of his Coalition colleagues when comes to defending deficit reduction in either moral or forensic terms.
3) He is one of the few evangelical public service reformers. This is a similar story to spending cuts. Even at the start of his leadership, Nick Clegg was a passionate advocate of public service reform (“The centralised system has failed the people who need it most,” as he put it in an article in 2008”) — and much of that original Orange Book spark has stayed alight throughout this government. For instance, the Lib Dem leader did much, behind-to-scenes, to argue for IDS’s Universal Credit. And he is still fighting some of the good fights now, such as over universal benefits.
But, putting all of his good qualities aside, there’s another, more self-interested reason why Tories, in particular, shouldn’t be beastly to Mr Clegg. He may have undermined the Conservatives’ chances getting into government after the next election with his opposition to the boundary review, but in doing so he also made himself more crucial to those chances. The way things are currently looking, it could well be coalition or nothing for David Cameron in 2015 — and that coalition would be very unlikely without Mr Clegg in charge of the Lib Dems. Most of those who might seize the Lib Dem crown — the Cables and the Farrons — are more easily aligned with Labour. They would surely shift their party further leftwards again.
None of this is to say that Nick Clegg is perfect. He does sometimes tend towards petulant statement politics, as we’ve seen in everything from the Lib Dems’ parliamentary walkout in 2008 to his Guardian interview yesterday. And, of course, he and his party act as a block against many of the good policies that a majority Conservative government would implement. But if anyone ever expected to nod along in agreement with everything the Lib Dem leader says and does, then they were always going to be disappointed. Disagree with him, sure. But to do so constantly and venomously neglects the complicated truths of the matter.