Brighton Rock and a Hard Place
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st September, 2012
Britain’s Liberal Democrats start gathering for their autumn conference in Brighton tomorrow in what could prove to be a far livelier — in both the good and bad senses of that word — gathering than the somewhat pedestrian official agenda suggests. It is hardly good news to go into a conference with the latest opinion poll putting the LibDems on 8%, level-pegging with UKIP, though that is nearly twice what the party achieved in the London Mayoral and GLA elections in May. Of course, much of the media pack will be asking just one question: will the party dump Nick Clegg as leader, as it did Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell? I can answer that one immediately, to save them the trouble asking: no. I say that not because I think Nick has ‘saved’ himself with his tuition fees apology video (considerably jollier in its sung version. by the way) but rather because this is absolutely not the moment for a leadership challenge. Nick can be proud of the fact that he took the party into government and there have been some (not many) important LibDem wins. What is absolutely not in doubt is that the Conservatives on their own would have been far worse, though that is not a particularly easy message to sell on the doorstep. Being in coalition is not easy, however, as both partners have been discovering. And certainly there is going to be a lot of pressure from activists at Brighton for the LibDems to differentiate ourselves from the Tories. But here the party is caught between a rock and hard place. It can’t undermine the coalition too much by criticising Cameron and other Conservative Ministers harshly, and yet it can’t seem to be propping the Conservatives up (a phraseology now being pushed by the Labour opposition). Well, I will opt for the rock in Brighton, appropriately, by which I mean we have to be proud of what we have achieved but also we must push for a mid-term review which gives more clarity to our different principles and priorities. This is a working partnership, not a political marriage (though right at the beginning, in the Rose Garden at No 10, it did seem a bit like the latter). Perhaps the most urgent task is for LibDems to explain to the British electorate what coalition government is all about and to show how and why we will be fgihting on different issues from those of our current partners in 2015, and even more so in the European elections in 2014.