Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Clegg it is then


Much, much closer than everyone thought it was going to be though. People are already saying that the tight margin of victory has meant that this is a victory for the Tories - in that the Lib Dems are already saddled with a leader half the party didn't vote for. However, this is much less of a problem than if Huhne had won. Clegg, remember, had the overwhelming declared support of the parliamentary party, even though the voting constituency was the party membership. Despite the role of the members in electing the leader, that leader's strength is determined by his support at Westminster. An analogous situation would be Iain Duncan Smith - winner in the party; never supported in the House; out before the Election. The Lib Dems have dodged that particular bullet, but there are more on the way.
The most important challenge can be delayed until after the Christmas recess. After Cable's genuinely effective, but efficiently stage-managed (by the Conservatives) performances at PMQs, all eyes will be on Clegg. It was the debut performance here that skewered Ming, shafted Duncan Smith and even caused a fluttering of unease for Brown. If Clegg is anything other than assured, calm and effective then expect a barrage of noise and jeering in the chamber, and hostile comments regarding 'Calamity Clegg' and unfavourable comparisons with his predecessor.
Even if Clegg can emulate Cable in a way no permanent leader of the Lib Dems has managed and hold the respect and attention of the House (and he's awfully young and inexperienced in the House), there are more problems ahead. The perennial challenge of the Lib Dems has been to overcome the problem of predominantly fighting the Tories in the south, and the Labour party in the north. Whether to be a left-of-centre alternative to Labour or a right-of-centre alternative to the Tories has bedevilled the Libs ever since the Gang of Four. People will assume, because he is young, clean-cut and 'modern', that Clegg will sympathise with the Tories - that's a potential problem right there.
The Kremlinology so beloved of the lobby and bloggers alike will mean that every pronouncement and every policy will be viewed in the context of a possible pact/coalition after the General Election. The greatest risk, of course, is that if Clegg foreshadows this with anything approaching a firm position, then the Election will be cast as a straight shoot-out between the two main parties, while if he holds his counsel, he will be accused of dithering or not being realistic. How he survives will depend on his relations with a media who have looked pretty underwhelmed by his leadership campaign.
As to who should be most worried by the election of Clegg, it's a tricky one to judge. Probably both main parties were best served by a leaderless Lib Dem party - whether de jure or de facto. The Labour Party will claim that a Lib Dem leader in the Cameron mould - both physically and, they will claim, ideologically, is bad news for the Tories. That may be true, but I suspect that, so concerned will Clegg be not to conform to the Cameron-lite jibe, any visible tacking will be to the base, in the short-term at any rate. Clegg will not forget how narrow his victory margin was, and will probably feel the need to calm the activist horses. Interesting times nonetheless, and it's not often you say that about the Liberal Democrats.

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