Paul Linford: Why Nick Clegg has reason to be cheerful as conference season ends

The Journal's former political editor on the prospects for the general election as British politics fragments into a four-party system

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg during a question and answer session on day three of the Liberal Democrat autumn conference at the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow, Scotland
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg during a question and answer session on day three of the Liberal Democrat autumn conference at the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow, Scotland

If this was an ordinary pre-election year, the Liberal Democrat party would be entitled to look forward to the forthcoming contest with more than a degree of optimism.

As we have seen over recent weeks, the Conservative and Labour parties have spent the conference season focusing less on the need to reach out to undecided voters and more on retreating into their ideological comfort zones.

This, in the normal course of events, ought to have opened up a wide political space for a centre party which, in the past, has frequently demonstrated its ability to attract take seats off the other two.

But of course this is no ordinary pre-election year, and the Lib Dems approach next May not as the “fresh faced outsiders” of yore, but as the party which has kept David Cameron in 10 Downing Street since 2010.

After four and a half years of Coalition, the big challenge facing party leader Nick Clegg in the run-up to polling day was always going to be to reassert the Lib Dems’ identity as a party with a genuinely distinctive – and in some respects anti-Tory - agenda.

I for one have long believed that the clearest way of demonstrating that would probably be for the party to go into the election under a new leader, and despite the show of unity in Glasgow I am certainly not alone in that view.

For a brief moment on Wednesday, it looked as though it might be about to happen. Following a flurry of overnight bets, the odds on Mr Clegg staying as leader until the election were suddenly slashed, and rumours swept the Twitterverse that he would quit that very afternoon.

But for once, the bookies got it badly wrong, and the Lib Dem leader came out fighting as he urged his party to go into the election with their “heads held high.”

In some respects, Mr Clegg’s keynote speech in Glasgow represented a pitch for that seemingly vacant political centre ground, as he presented himself as the man to take on what he sees as “increasingly extreme” rival parties.

Danny Lawson/PA Wire Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
 

But at the same time, he ignored the calls to distance himself from the Coalition’s record, seeking instead to take the credit for some of its achievements, notably raising the income tax threshold and parental leave reforms, but more generally its overall economic record.

The Lib Dems’ claim to acted as a brake on the Tories throughout their time in government will clearly be crucial to their election pitch – the subliminal message here being that another hung Parliament would actually be no bad thing.

Mr Clegg hopes to persuade the voters that only another Coalition can curb the worst instincts of the two main parties - or, as one commentator put it, stop Mr Cameron spending too little or Labour’s Ed Miliband spending too much.

One of the issues on which it is clear that the Lib Dems have little in common with the Tories is that of English devolution, a question which has inevitably loomed large over this year’s conference season in the wake of the Scottish independence vote.

Mr Clegg’s favoured solution, set out in an interview on Monday, is a system of “devolution on demand” to allow city regions to have powers devolved to them at their request unless the Government can give a good reason why not.

He said: “I’ve said very clearly to the Tories that I’m not going to have decentralisation for England dropped by the wayside – it’s got to be an inalienable part of this. I want it bolted on.”

Given that both Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband are now backing English regional devolution as an essential adjunct to any move towards ‘English votes for English laws,’ Mr Cameron will find it hard to stand out against this.

For all that, though, it is the Prime Minister who emerges from this conference season as the obvious winner.

His party has regained its poll lead over Labour after two years, and, as was clear from some of the speeches in Glasgow, the smart money is now once again on the Tories being the largest single party, whether or not they succeed in gaining a majority.

The blot on the Mr Cameron’s horizon, as ever, is UKIP, its by-election successes this week providing further proof of the fragmentation of English politics into a four-party system.

Given that this can only lead to more hung Parliaments, perhaps it is Mr Clegg who ends the season with the biggest reason to be cheerful.

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