As former, disgruntled party members go, I think it is fair to say that I’ve been remarkably discreet and reasonable. I’m not a huge believer in trashing my former colleagues (and still, in many cases, current friends) in some vanity exercise designed to justify my resignation ex post facto, and tend to distrust the judgement of people who feel the need to endlessly do so. Aside from a couple of blog posts, I’ve generally kept pretty schtum, and have very little time for those who denounce the Lib Dems as having sold out and failed to achieve anything in government, as if the position they were put into wasn’t fiendishly difficult or that the alternative – a Tory majority government – would be somehow better. Generally speaking, while I think they are getting the big picture pretty badly wrong, on a daily basis the Lib Dems are making a very real difference in government.
You can tell there’s a but coming, can’t you?
But, then. Tuesday. What, the actual, fuck? Just for the sake of argument, let’s completely ignore the human cost of yesterday’s vote on benefits. Let’s just focus on the politics. Back in September, flushed with his (non) apology about his handling of the tuition fees debacle going viral on YouTube, Nick Clegg issued an ultimatum: “For me, it is very simple. You can’t have more cuts without more wealth taxes.”
Well, aside from some tweaking to the pension rules, he didn’t get any wealth taxes this autumn. But you know what? The cuts are happening anyway. So much for “it is very simple”.
Unless, apparently, you are Stephen Tall: “It’s the kind of compromise that happens within a Coalition government.” Well, er, no. The “compromise” was that the Tories would get a cut in benefits and the Lib Dems would get a wealth tax. Spinning retrospectively that all that has happened was Cameron and Clegg split the difference is delusional. What actually happened is that Clegg made an opening gambit, Osborne called his bluff, Clegg blinked, and got a pity concession so he could at least pretend to have saved some face. Carry out your threats or don’t make them; you won’t get a second chance.
Putting benefits at the centre of a horsetrading negotiation is one thing. Failing to carry out threats is quite another. You can argue that the Lib Dems have conceded too much in this coalition, but tuition fees aside, they haven’t actually done that bad a job of over-reaching or making pledges they weren’t prepared to stand by. Clegg, to his credit, has carried out his threat to block boundary changes in exchange for the Tories’ betrayal over House of Lords reform (although the fact that the zombie boundary review lives on within the pages of the Mid Term Review speaks volumes about the weak leadership of both Cameron and Clegg). Things were looking up. Today’s capitulation however can’t be put down to naivety. What it suggests is that for Clegg there ultimately is no bottom line and no point at which he is prepared to walk away. What it tells Osborne is that he can merrily keep salami slicing the welfare bill, and the Lib Dem response will be the Stephen Tall “genius” move of “splitting the difference” each time. It would be comedy gold if it didn’t affect the lives of so many vulnerable people.
Speaking of comedy gold, it should not be forgotten that the Lib Dems communications department would very much like its parliamentary party to keep pushing the line that “The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fair society.” Based on today’s performance, it is manifest that that assertion is not true. Of course you can trust the Conservatives. They have an agenda and they doggedly stick to it. They might not want a fair society (although by their standards, and many voters’, they do), but they can damn well be trusted. That consistency counts for an awful lot in the electorate’s eyes.
It is Clegg, and all those who go along with him, who can’t be trusted. From a communications point of view, flip-flopping in this way is more damaging to the Lib Dem brand than any number of backbench MPs going off message. The Lib Dems’ communications problem isn’t non-entities saying the wrong thing; Clegg himself is the living embodiment of the Lib Dems’ fundamental communications problem. Focusing on anything else is just displacement activity.
Oh, and a final thing. I really don’t understand why it is that so many Lib Dems are so up in arms about Ken Clarke’s secret courts legislation, with talk of special conferences and all out war coming my way from numerous sources, while the best welfare gets is a shrug of the shoulders. It isn’t that I don’t think civil liberties are worth standing up for; it’s the lack of a sense of proportion. Enabling the government to hold secret trials, at most, might affect thousands of people. Benefit cuts stand to affect millions.
Even if you agree with these cuts, from a civil liberties perspective, surely last year’s legal aid cuts were more onerous than the secret courts? I just don’t understand why so many seem prepared to die in the ditch over a principle that affects a tiny minority, while don’t appear capable of doing anything more than shrug their shoulders over cuts which affect a whole segment of society. Again, it appears dangerously to resemble displacement activity; the wider cuts are too hard and too vast, so it is easier to focus on small measures and exaggerate their importance (see also: this utter preoccupation with Labour hypocrisy and opportunism as if that somehow justifies anything whatsoever).
90% of the criticism of the Lib Dems is at best unfair, at worse downright mendacious. But what I saw on Tuesday was a party that has ceased to have any kind of strategic nouse or moral compass whatsoever; that will doom them more than anything.