Temper, temper: Clegg shows the pressure

Neil Clark: If you think the Lib Dem leader is struggling now, just wait for next month’s party conference

BY Neil Clark LAST UPDATED AT 08:55 ON Mon 23 Aug 2010

Nothing fails like success; nothing is so defeated as yesterday's triumphant cause. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Phyllis McGinley wasn't writing about Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats when she penned those lines - but they sum up perfectly what has happened to Britain's third party and its leader since its breakthrough election 'success' in May.

Then the champagne corks were popping, as the Liberals entered a peacetime British government for the first time since the 1930s. Three months on and it's a very different story.
 
A recent poll shows that Liberal Democrat support has slumped to just 16 per cent - with one third of those who voted Lib Dem in the general election abandoning the party.
 
Rumours abound of high-level defections from the party - the latest concerning the former leader Charles Kennedy.
 
As criticism of Nick Clegg mounts, so the personal deficiencies of the Lib Dem leader are becoming more apparent. The man who earlier this year rivalled Winston Churchill in the popularity stakes - after his slick performance in the first live television election debate - has been exposed as tetchy, humourless and lacking in charm.
 
Consider the way Clegg dealt with disillusioned Liberal Democrat voter Craig Toft, who had accused him of following an "ideological crusade" at a question and answer session in Newcastle last week. Instead of adopting a conciliatory tone, Clegg lost his cool, rudely interrupting his questioner and demanding three times that Toft give evidence to back up his claim, before launching into a tiresome three-minute monologue.

A more accomplished political performer - Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, or even David Cameron - would have laughed off Toft's charge and probably succeeded, with a mixture of charm and persuasion, in getting the disgruntled voter back on board. Clegg by contrast came over as an insecure neurotic.

A few days later, Clegg hit the wrong key again when he pompously brushed off a questioner who had compared his 'political marriage' with David Cameron to the troubled union of Ashley and Cheryl Cole with the words: "Much as your [question] was elegant and humorous, please do not just glibly pick up whatever a headline says."

The Lib Dem leader may have slept with up to 30 women - a claim he made in a magazine interview when he was running for party leader - but it's clear that he's never read Dale Carnegie's book How to Win Friends and Influence People.
 
But if Clegg is feeling the heat now, it's nothing compared to what he can expect in the next few months.

Grassroots Lib Dem anger against the coalition government's Thatcherite economic policies are growing by the day. Next month's party conference in Liverpool is more likely to resemble the rebellious Labour party conferences of the early 1980s than the triumphant 'All Hail the King' occasion that Clegg might have envisaged back in May.
 
The basic problem - which more and more Liberal Democrat voters and activists are now waking up to - is that their leader has more in common with David Cameron and the Tories than he does with them.

It's not just that Clegg and Cameron are men cut from the same wealthy, upper-middle class, public school-educated cloth. It's that on the key issues of the day, Nick and Dave really are singing from the same hymn sheet.

Clegg and the three other Lib Dems who entered the Cabinet in May - Vince Cable, David Laws and Chris Huhne - contributed to the publication in 2004 of The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism, which urged the party to adopt more free-market economic policies, including privatisation and health care reform.

Under Clegg's leadership, the Lib Dems moved sharply to the neo-liberal right - dropping proposals such as re-nationalisation of the railways, which had been included in their 2005 election manifesto.
 
For Clegg, a political marriage with the fellow anti-statist Cameron is a perfectly logical step. But for Lib Dem voters and activists, the Lib Dem/Tory coalition is a shocking betrayal. It has involved spectacular U-turns on VAT, cuts in public spending and the NHS.
 
Thanks to the Orange Bookers' takeover of the Liberal Democrats, a formal party split - as I suggested in a column for The First Post a week before the general election - seems inevitable. It won't happen this year. But sometime in the current decade the two wings of the party are likely to go their separate ways.
 
Clegg's Orange Book Liberals, espousing social and economic liberalism, will become the British version of the German Free Democratic Party and will be the natural coalition partners of the Tories, in the same way that the FDP collaborate in government with the German Christian Democrats.
 
The more left-wing Liberal Democrats, perhaps led by current deputy leader Simon Hughes, or even a resurgent Charles Kennedy, would be committed to defending the welfare state and the NHS, and will be the natural coalition partners of Labour, who, regardless of whoever wins this autumn's leadership contest, will find themselves edging to the left as the impact of the coalition's draconian cuts in public spending begin to be felt.
 
Nick Clegg may well go down in history as the man who destroyed the Liberal Democrats in their current form. But it seems likely that Liberals will be participating in the government of Britain for a long time to come. ·