Comment: Clegg's double-think, threats and bad jokes

Ian Dunt: 'Clegg's effort to quell speculation about the future of the party was particularly poisonous'
Ian Dunt: 'Clegg's effort to quell speculation about the future of the party was particularly poisonous'
Ian Dunt By

Once upon a time - before he was in government - Nick Clegg was terrible at making speeches. We would read the script a couple of hours beforehand and then watch him stumble over all the pauses and misjudge the crescendos. Now, his scripts are much worse, but he is much better. He pauses at the right time, paces his delivery and emotes convincingly.

That is where the praise ends.

The rest of his speech contained a litany of barely-concealed threats, logical incompatibilities and terrible, groan-inducing jokes.

Clegg spoke as often as he could of the promised land to come ("one of the three parties of government") but for all the positive imagery this was an intensely negative speech.

It was barely a speech at all - more a collection of unrelated thoughts. Of these, the most prominent was the encouragement of fear in Liberal Democrats.

The key line for this argument was: "If we secure our country's future we will secure our own."

The thinking is that Lib Dem poll ratings will only improve with the economy. The party is so tightly leashed to George Osborne's financial strategy that it's only hope now is for it to succeed. Clegg is going down with the ship and he wants his party to come with him.

"If Plan A really was as rigid and dogmatic as our critics claim, I'd be demanding a Plan B, and getting Danny and Vince to design it," Clegg said, prompting a wince from the business secretary. After watching the body language between the two of them, it seems likely their relationship has completely fallen apart behind closed doors.

Clegg took care to criticise his partners in coalition, including a forced jibe about Cameron which he made with a pained expression on his face. He even pledged to stop Osborne further reducing the top rate of income tax. But this was total theatre. Osborne has no intention of further reducing the top rate in the next two years. Clegg – too weak or unprincipled to stop the chancellor doing it the first time round - now makes a promise to prevent something which he knows has no chance of taking place.

His effort to quell speculation about the future of the party was particularly poisonous. "There’s been a lot of discussion on the fringe of this conference about our party's next steps; about our relationship with the other parties; and about what we should do in the event of another hung parliament," he said. "It is all based on a false, and deeply illiberal, assumption: that it is we, rather than the people, who get to decide."

Notice the game Clegg played. He cannot work with Labour, as Miliband has already made clear. So any discussion about doing so presupposes him falling on his sword. Clegg's way of dealing with that is to write off any such speculation as undemocratic. It is a semantic manoeuvre of almost Stalinist proportions. Even on purely logical grounds, the sentiment is meaningless. Parties can only negotiate coalitions on their number of seats, which are won by securing votes. It's not as if Tim Farron and Cable intend to launch a coup.

But the most depressing and revealing (the two things always go together at conference) element of the speech was Clegg's use of double-think.

Seemingly without irony, Clegg told the conference floor: "To those who ask, incredulously, what we – the Liberal Democrats – are doing cutting public spending, I simply say this: Who suffers most when governments go bust? When they can no longer pay salaries, benefits and pensions? Not the bankers and the hedge fund managers, that's for sure. No, it would be the poor, the old, the infirm; those with the least to fall back on."

It takes considerable chutzpah to paint Britain's current political circumstances as a remedy for the poor. This is the world Clegg sees as Andrew Mitchell launches class-ridden tirades against working people, as the highest earners have their taxes cut while VAT hammers consumers, as 32 disabled people die a week after failing the test for new incapacity benefit.

Instead Clegg framed Europe's total capitulation to the markets as a defence of the poor. Those who questioned it were simply fools, longing for an mythical world of the past.

"It's a debate between those who understand how much the world has changed, and those who do not," he said. "The fate of every European country – ours included – will depend on the outcome. In the coming years, some countries will get their own house in order. But some will not. Those that do will continue to write their own budgets. But those that do not will find their right to self-determination withdrawn by the markets."

Clegg's attitude to national sovereignty is just as flaky and surreal as his appeal to the poor. His method for maintaining self-determination from the markets is to do precisely what they want. Take either option, get the same result. As Silvio Berlusconi found out when he was summarily dismissed from power and as Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy is finding out right now: democracy is the first victim of a joint attack by the European Union and the financial markets to their own mistakes.

Conferences always feel alien and strange, not least because the people that attend them are so distinct to the rest of the population. They exist in a smelly self-imposed bubble, where people always have a bit of sandwich in the corner of their mouth and everyone is happy to talk about political strategy for four days solid. But by any standard, this speech was as divorced from reality as any in recent memory.

His response to a failed economic plan was to hold it tighter. His response to a party trying to establish its future was to brand it undemocratic. His definition of deeply lopsided spending cuts was to pretend they were implemented to help the victim. And his image of national freedom  is to do whatever the markets demand.

At best it was dim-witted, at worse it was cunning. In all probability, it was a little of both.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.