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Is he Calamity Clegg?

Four years ago today, Nick Clegg was unveiled as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats. In a closely fought contest, Clegg defeated Chris Huhne in a postal ballot of Party members by a mere 511 votes (20,988 votes to 20,477).

As I’ve argued elsewhere, Liberal Democrat (and, before the merger of the two parties in 1988, Liberal and SDP) leadership contests have tended to be low-key and ‘gentlemanly’ affairs, sometimes to the point of utter banality – or, as my colleague Matthew Francis has put it, ‘blandness’.

Not so in 2007, which turned out to be a singularly ill-tempered affair, with Huhne’s office compiling a lengthy document entitled ‘Calamity Clegg’; for his part, Clegg accused Huhne (on live TV) of ‘the politics of innuendo’. Four years on, Party members remain divided on whether they made the right choice. On the one hand, there are those who look back on the ‘Calamity Clegg’ episode and have (apparently) few regrets, if any. ‘This was the moment I knew I was voting for Nick as leader’, said one. Others have seemingly changed their minds. As one disillusioned Lib Dem commented on YouTube, after watching the televised footage again this time last year:

Huhne was right. Clegg may be Deputy PM, but he has turned out to be one big calamity; his Toryism will put the nail in the Lib Dem coffin. Clegg is nothing but a puppet to the Conservative Party and his party has become nothing but stooges for the Tories. WHAT A BIG BLOODY BETRAYAL. I wish I had voted for Huhne to be leader.

But are such people right: is the LibDem leader ‘Calamity Clegg’? As we tell our students in exam questions: Discuss.

Andrew Denham

Published inBritish PoliticsLiberal Democrats


  1. jane mckellar jane mckellar

    For my sins, I am a member of the Lib-Dems. I think they may have broken up the Union. Even I would vote for independance to get away from vile Tory/LibDem policies.

  2. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    Well, it’s customary, when dissing anyone as a calamity (or perhaps, in this case, a Cleggastrophe) to point to what they’ve actually done to deserve such labelling. This Andrew Denham studiously avoids doing.

    And for good reason. At the end of the election campaign, Clegg – by merely holding his nerve – had repeated Paddy Ashdown’s feat of increasing his party’s share of the vote substantially during the campain itself. Perhaps not so hard for Clegg, up against the exhausted Brown and, in Cameron, a Tory leader determined not to let anyone find out if he was wet or dry, pro or con, this or that.

    Given the result, what should Clegg have done? As Shirley Williams noted at the time, the Parliamentary arithmetic compelled him to seek some accommodation with the Tories (just as it had compelled the Lib-Lab pact of the late ’70s). A coalition looked to offer more than a “confidence and supply” arrangement.

    The attacks on Clegg began after the AV referendum produced a “no” vote. Given that AV is not what his Party wants, it probably was the wrong deal in the first place. Would Cameron really have rejected STV for local councils on the back of local referendums? Did Clegg scout such a proposal? Or is he holding it back for the coalition negotiations in the next Parliament?

    For it’s by no means clear that the dream of the Tory Right will come true, even if ICM have them 6% ahead in their latest poll. The Lib Dems are still on 14% and that’s before the campaign proper starts. Clegg probably hopes that the Carswells and Dorrieses will shriek and bark for all they’re worth in the New Year. They make his case for him.

    One other factor. How are the Mail and the Sun, among others, going to argue for the necessity of kicking the LibDems when they’re (supppsedly) down, after they’ve been in government with the Tories for two (as I expect) or five (as the Politics Department of Nottingham University predicts) years?

    During the last campaign a young Tory activist told me that he did have an answer to my question as to why a Con-LibDem coalition would be undesirable, but “it would take too long for me to explain”. I bet it would – and it’ll still take him too long next time.

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