31 Mar 2015

Nick Clegg, ‘Yoda’ Ashdown and the future of coalitions

Nick Clegg never thought he would get into power in 2010. He was convinced his party would take one more election to get there and he told anyone who would listen that he planned to enter coalition in 2015 with 100 or more MPs. That plan was ambushed by the results of the 2010 election and David Cameron’s decision to offer full-fat coalition.

For Nick Clegg, it was an emotional roller-coaster of a morning, well captured in the Channel 4 drama Coalition. After the love-in that followed the first debate, he watched the two main parties fight back and on the night saw his tally of MPs actually fall.

I well remember him arriving back at Lib Dem headquarters in the early morning of the day after the election. Party staffers were applauding to raise the mood but his head was bowed. I even saw him bite his bottom lip as the emotion got to him. He didn’t think David Cameron would go for coalition – but that’s exactly what the Tory leader was planning a few streets away from where Nick Clegg stood.


Bertie Carvel (foreground) as Nick Clegg in the Channel 4 drama Coalition

In our profile of Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader acknowledges that he and his party were pretty “tight-lipped” about differences with the Tories in the early part of the coalition. Those who wanted to differentiate more were slapped down. Coalition negotiator and former energy secretary Chris Huhne tells us Nick Clegg confused what the role of deputy PM was and saw himself as more of a “split the difference” or “chairman” role when he actually needed to be more feisty projecting his party’s identity.

Nick Clegg says he had no choice, that people forget how much doom and gloom there was about coalition and its viability. He says no coalition partner will ever again have to do what he did and hold back on opinions to project harmony and convince doubters about coalition. He has performed a public service, breaking through a path for future coalitions. Whether he will be part of one is another question.

Paddy Ashdown, who feels he was made to look like Yoda in the Channel 4 Coalition drama, told us of Nick Clegg’s dark nights of the soul when he has wondered if he is the problem, dragging down his party, and should stand down.

Lord “Yoda” Ashdown said he particularly well remembered the day after last May’s European and local elections, when even more Lib Dem councillors were rolled up and the party’s representation in the European parliament was down to one. Nick Clegg, when he eventually came to the cameras after an eerily long delay, looked like a man who had been under enormous strain.

The Nick Clegg you meet now seems at peace with himself. If the Lib Dems go down to a horrible defeat he will feel he could do no other. He had to go into coalition and has beaten a path for future Lib Dem coalitions (even if there isn’t one this time round). He believes his party had no future as an agitating fringe party that never stepped up to the plate, and he has given it a basis for future growth.

He even tells me off for repeating some of his own MPs’ fears and says he hopes I’ll have the decency to apologise to him in person after the election if the Lib Dems do better than predicted. I will, if the MPs I was quoting promise to come with me – Nick Clegg looked unusually fierce in this part of the interview.

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4 reader comments

  1. Chris Baskerville says:

    The Lib/Dems entered the coalition as a party of the left and after 5 years is now to the right of centre. i.e. pro free market, privatization e.g. of railways, post office and health. No support for abortion and euthanasia on demand, -(the last 6 months of life are the most miserable for us and those we leave behind) or of legislation for the decriminalization of all drugs and for the abolishing of the green belt, to then build the number of houses that the UK needs. It panders to NIMBYS and the grey vote and I am 75. Shame on this new version of the Lib/Dems and back to the Old Lib/Dems for me please. But I will remain a party member, still wearing those J.C. sandals!

  2. oliver s says:

    I think Clegg’s response to your challenge was 100% spot on. Will you challenge any other minority party in the same way and especially Nicola Sturgeon?
    I believe the LibDem move has proven itself to be mould breaking and I would like to see it continue. People like Danny Alexander, Steve Webb and Vince Cable have all contributed enormously to the last Government and collectively the party has rounded out the extreme edges of the Tories. The big blunder over tuition fees was bad and so was the timing of trying to get a new voting system but both were born out of that early “tight-lipped” approach. Ironically, if held at the time of the last European elections, any kind of PR vote would have massively benefitted UKIP and now perhaps mostly the Greens at the expense of the Lib Dems – the European elections showed that. Maybe Nick likes FPTP after all :-)
    I abhor the idea that the LibDems will simply jump into bed with Labour in the event that Labour do garner the most seats because it just smacks of power at any cost and I hope that the result gives rise to another consideration of the voting system. Rather than an in/out EU referendum, there should be an English, Irish and Welsh referendum on whether we still want the Scots! The SNP look set to make the future parliament interesting to say the least but if they ignore the will of the English majority, there could easily be some very nasty turns – on paper at least – a civil war. The SNP’s intervention could set back so many aspects of the UK because of their open opposition to working with the Tories at any cost. Much more irresponsible than the LibDem approach in 2010.
    In terms of “breaking the mould” and setting a hopefully routine path to sound coalition politics, then I hope that history at least is kind to Clegg and the LibDems and maybe in the near term future as well.

    1. Alex Sims says:

      Very spot on analysis. After decades of hoping to “break the mould” , they finally have. History should indeed be kind to Clegg – a decent man with little experience of power. He was especially naive with regard to the Conservative party and how brutal they can be with anybody that gets in their way – including their own – think Thatcher or Major. Watch out Cameron if you lose this time !!

  3. Peter Jack says:

    Gary, does this new GDP figures now include drug money and prostitution as I am led to believe

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