Usually, it has to be said, I find Nick Clegg unmemorable. I have been known to describe him as mind butter, given that my brain can’t seem to stay focussed on what he’s saying, his words just slide right off. All of which, of course makes him an ideal leader of the Liberal Democrats. Given their strongest electoral asset tends to be their inability to be pinned down on specifics, be all things to all voters etc., his very unmemorableness serves them well.
The third party will tend to pick up voters from those who are interested in politics, but are disaffected with the two main parties. It is my strong instinct that this will tend to lead to more people leaving the party of power to the third party at any given time. So for the last 13 years, in my experience, it’s been the disaffected left who have left or not joined Labour over issues like the war, tuition fees (which I don’t think is a left wing issue, but that’s another post), ID cards etc.
Nick Clegg on the other hand seems to come from the right of the party – certainly economically. He was an Orange Booker and has frequently cited market liberalism as a cure for economic ills. He’s not a stupid man or a naive one, so he also knew exactly what he was doing when he eulogised Thatcher recently, pledged to cut the deficit with cuts only, ruling out tax increases (something even the Tories haven’t done) and harking back to the miners strike of the 1980s. Despite the key message being about reigning in bankers, he knows these are dog whistle messages to the Tories that they can work together as long as the Tories do so to Vince Cable’s time table. Swingeing cuts but not just yet seems to me to be the message Clegg is giving.
The irony that the Liberal Democrat’s weakest leader since David Steele is in a likely position to have the most power a Liberal has enjoyed since Lloyd George is lost on no one. But personally I can’t imagine a more poisoned chalice. The Lib Dems have for so long been the place for people who are discontented to pour their hopes, usually without it having to mean anything in reality (though of course they have disappointed locally, from the mess of Southwark leisure, to the 70% of wind farm rejections by Lib Dem councils). They have always been able to comfortably criticise from the sidelines without the pressure that the responsibility of governance brings. So if Clegg is forced to pick a side, and does so over issues that the Lib Dems really care about but make little impact on the lives of ordinary people (I’m talking PR of course – again another post for another day) they will find themselves suddenly under scrutiny, supporting a party (either way) that a great deal of their supporters can’t stand and no longer a great repository for disillusioned voters.
The Greens must be praying very hard for a hung Parliament.