Comment: Clegg will be the Atlee of the Lib Dems

Clegg may be kingmaker but every option leads to oblivion.

By Ian Dunt

It’s said that the greatest irony of the election is that the Liberal Democrats ended a poor showing with the greatest power they have ever had. It’s true, but the greater irony is that Nick Clegg is now both kingmaker and victim. He has the fate of the country in his hands, but every choice results in the end of his political career.

If Clegg goes into coalition with David Cameron he will be tainted by the ugly battles over public spending to come. His brush with power will come at the worst possible time. At this nascent point in the Lib Dems’ flutter with government, it will end them.

If he goes with Labour, the right-wing press (that is, the majority of the press) will dub it the government of the defeated. To those with a passing interest in politics, but little understanding of it (that is, the majority of people) it will seem undemocratic.

Either road leads Clegg to political oblivion. That’s unfortunate, because of all three leaders he has conducted himself with the most sense and dignity since the results of the general election became clear. Gordon Brown may have appeared statesmanlike outside Downing Street, but he has basically prostrated himself in front of the Lib Dems, like a drunken flirt at a high school party beckoning them into the woods.

Meanwhile, Cameron’s statement yesterday summed up all the weaknesses of the Tory party under his leadership: all style, no substance. PR we don’t want, and no PR we do. Cameron described the offer as “big, open and comprehensive”. This was the PR man at his most perfect; total double-think. No sooner had the description been offered than he negated it with the contents. There would be no negotiation on immigration, defence, Europe or the deficit reduction. They would work together where they agreed, such as on the pupil premium, but that just means that what would have happened under a Tory government would be taking place under a Conservative-led government – an uninteresting fact.

Cameron then offered to prioritise tax reform, which equated not so much to policy movement but movement in the queue. And finally, he offered an inquiry on electoral reform. We’ve had those before. We’ve had promises in manifestos too, and it never happened. This was Cameron kicking the issue into the long grass, as so many have done before him.

Clegg knows that, and more importantly his party members and MPs know it. I doubt they’ll let him go down that road, even if they could stomach getting into bed with the Tories.

Clegg has a historic opportunity to install proportional representation (the good PR) in Britain. He must grasp it, for once it is gone we may never see it again. Labour is offering legislation. That must be the route he picks. Quite apart from its other benefits, it will make the Lib Dems a true force in British politics.

He will be hated for joining with Labour (and the nationalists required to make up the numbers). The press will accuse the losers of stitching up the winners. This is false. Such a government would represent the will of over half the electorate. It would have the biggest mandate in recent British history. This is the system the Tories and their supporters believe in, so they can now suffer its consequences. It’s laughable to watch the right-wing press work itself up about the inadequacies of a system they have defended for so long.

Regardless; it will ruin Clegg. If he works under Brown, the press, and much of the public, will be so red-faced with anger at Brown’s continued presence at Number 10 that anyone associated with the government will be tainted forever. If Clegg manages to get rid of Brown as a condition of his support, there will be anger at a second consecutive unelected prime minister. It’s no good reminding people that we vote for a party, not a prime minister. The gap between the rhetoric and political reality is now so thin it barely exists, as Clegg proved when he unilaterally ignored the constitution by offering to talk to Cameron first. Natural justice, or common sense, or popular sentiment, or whatever you want to call it, is now the order of the day.

Either of the two options entailed by a Lib-Lab pact are unacceptable. Unfortunately, one of them – preferably the second – must take place.

At the end of this ugly process, there is a light. At the next election each British citizen will wake up and know: my vote will count today. That’s a price worth paying. Clegg is the man who will have to pay it.

In the history of his party, and maybe even the country, he will be a hero. But in the short term, for the duration of the government, he will be a traitorous villain. It will end him, but his legacy will prevail. He will be the Clement Atlee of the Liberal Democrats, disgarded quickly, but remembered forever.

My big fear is that the Tories will offer him something so tempting that he’ll fall for it, something like the Home Office brief. They’ll then call another election as quickly as they think they might win it.

Let’s hope Clegg has the strength of character to meet the demands history will make of him this week. We’re about to find out if the kingmaker-scapegoat has the resolve to sacrifice himself for his party.

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