Image: Flikr / Liberal Democrats
Originally written for publication in The Boar, Warwick University’s student newspaper.
This week a number of journalists were reluctantly torn from the beach volleyball and boxing to report on a story they were dismayed to find had no link to the Olympics at all. Little did they know that they would soon be witnessing an event nothing short of a scientific miracle. As they gathered round to hear yet another run-of-the-mill Nick Clegg concession to his Conservative colleagues, they were startled to find something very odd happening to the Deputy Prime Minister. Initially he seemed on edge. Then he started shaking. Finally, his body started pulsating in a petrifying rhythmic frenzy. Was he dancing? Was he possessed? No. Eventually, it became clear that the impossible was happening. Nick Clegg was growing a backbone before their very eyes.
The Conservatives have abandoned the House of Lords reform they promised the Liberal Democrats, and Clegg has said that the coalition contract has been broken. Needless to say, many commentators – not least self-important student journalists like myself – will be quick to point out that this is a man who knows a thing or two about broken promises. The rather difficult question it leaves us with, is, given that Nick Clegg has shown he is willing stand up for what he feels he and his party are owed: why has it taken the man so damn long? Why has inadequate support for House of Lords reform spurred him to action as opposed to, say, the tripling of university tuition fees he once tasked himself and his party with preventing? Or the heavy-handed cuts to public services which will negatively impact some of the worst off?
Make no mistake about it – he has taken a stand when he could have sat back and let the reforms slip away and suffer what he called ‘a slow death’. In doing so he has challenged the stability of what was previously an unlikely – but at least workable – coalition. The trouble is that he’s taken a stand at a time when, frankly, nobody is particularly interested. The public are currently more preoccupied with drooling over athletes’ bodies, rather than re-examining legislative ones, and the only politician who seems to have the power to grab headlines is Boris Johnson. The Mayor of London can secure more media attention by getting stuck in on a zip-wire than the Lib Dem leader can by taking on the Prime Minister. His attack is ill-timed to put it mildly.
Can we at very least conclude that Clegg has shown he is principled enough to break rank and speak out? We can; but this is not enough, and his timing is not his only problem. He has taken a stand on what most regard as one of the least pressing of issues of the day – regardless of its place in the coalition contract. Protests pertaining to fees, cuts or the NHS may have (re)gained Clegg some left-wing kudos. House of Lords reform is simply not in the same league.
Going forward, he needs to pick his battles more carefully. This challenge has had all the timing of Paul McCartney’s opening ceremony performance and all the excitement of central London’s currently decimated high streets. If he’s going to shake things up, he needs to think bigger, better: get in time and sing in tune. There may, against all odds, be hope for him yet.