There's an old joke about two men who encounter a bear in the woods. As it begins to growl, one of them kneels down to start putting on his running shoes. His friend looks at him. "Those aren't going to help you run faster than a bear," he says. His friend replies: "I'm not trying to outrun the bear."
Nick Clegg is in a similar position. He's not trying to make you like him. He just wants you to like him more than the party leader you most hate.
For all his claims of a positive message, the Liberal Democrat leader delivered an intensely negative speech today, but one which offers the best chance of the party surviving the 2015 general election and retaining their role as kingmakers.
Clegg is a reliably unremarkable speaker. That is never going to change. The haughtiness of his Commons performances fades away at conference time, replaced by a condescending mateyness. Clegg is only ever believable when he's angry and at conference time he's not allowed to be.
Nevertheless, he was more convincing than usual. With remarkably consistent positive headlines in the press and no-one to challenge him, the Lib Dem leader is at the height of his powers. There was a confidence to his performance which was previously absent. It was still mind-numbingly dull, but there was some improvement.
And for the first time in a long time, the political proposition he was putting forward made electoral sense.
There were still elements on incoherence, of course. He spent much of the time promoting the end of single party government, only to then insist that really everything would be better if the Lib Dems – and him specifically – were in charge.
He tried to stress the importance of his role in government in a passage which contained the following sentence: "Had they asked us, [I'd have said] no to those 'go home' poster vans." It was one of those comments which instantly negates its own existence.
Clegg even insisted that he "always thought it was better to tell people about the things you've achieved, not just the things you've stopped". But he didn't mean it. While a few fleeting passages celebrated the accomplishments of the coalition, the central thrust of the speech was about what the party could prevent, rather than what it could achieve.
The message was: neither Labour nor the Tories can be trusted on their own. They need the Lib Dems to control them.
Labour would wreck the recovery," he said. "The Conservatives would give us the wrong kind of recovery. Only the Liberal Democrats can finish the job and finish it in a way that is fair."
This negative view of politics – of preventing rather than accomplishing – is generally considered bad form. Voters allegedly want a positive image.
That's questionable. The coalition was not a product of a wish for political cooperation. It came about because the public didn't believe any party laid a claim to run the country. It was a product of a lack of faith. All three party leaders have negative net popularity ratings. As Peter Kellner of YouGov recently wrote, the days when political popularity would swing from government to opposition and back again are over. They are now all held in low regard, all of the time.
Clegg's negative approach is the best mechanism for him to retain his MPs in 2015.
The Lib Dems are not planning on winning new seats at the general election. They have a poll rating which barely touches double figures. It is not going to happen.
Clegg lied that "our job is plain and simple – to get more Lib Dem MPs elected". It's not what he's really planning. In reality he will deliver all his resources to incumbents, who can use their existing status and the party's battle-hardened local election machine to keep their seat at all cost. Candidates won't be getting any pocket money. They will be sacrificed to a necessarily conservative election strategy.
Under first-past-the-post, the system Clegg has railed against for years, this party can keep most of their 57 seats, while losing the vast majority of its 23% vote share.
He can do that with a very simple proposition: political damage limitation. Voters might not like the Lib Dems. They don't need to. They just need to dislike them less than the other guy. Clegg gave Labour voters enough reasons to think that he halted the excesses of the Tories and Tories enough reason to think he would halt the excesses of Labour.
This is a valid argument. The Lib Dems really have halted many Tory excesses, and the thoroughly insane Tory Taliban charter, with its suggestions for privatising the BBC and banning the hijab, has helped his PR exercise ten-times over.
On civil liberties and economic spending, the party can make a convincing case that it would do the same with Labour.
It is not a message which needs to be accepted by the public at large. It just needs to be accepted by people in a handful of marginal constituencies where the Lib Dems are hanging on.
Nick Clegg is right. 'No' is currently the most potent word in politics.
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