Monday, 17 May 2010
Yo Clegg! Can the Lib Dem leader avoid being seen as Cameron's poodle?
At the G8 Conference held in St Petersburg on 17 July 2006, US President Bush was overheard greeting the PM with "Yo Blair!". For many political commentators, the style of the greeting was seen as confirmation of the subservient role that Blair (and Britain) had played in its "special relationship" with Bush and the United States. To them it reinforced the image of the British Prime Minster being at the US President's beck and call; that he was, in effect, Mr Bush's poodle.
As his successor Gordon Brown's recent mishap perhaps shows, often what matters is whether the image resonates with the general public. The Sun's 1992 polling day picture of Neil Kinnock inside a light bulb with the caption "will the last person to leave Britain please turn off the lights" may not have been "wot won it" but it certainly wounded Labour whilst the cruel cartoons of John Major with his underpants worn over his suit did much to damage his public image, as he himself has admitted. Never has image and perception been so important in British politics as it is today.
Nick Clegg is now in the position of being the junior partner in a coalition government in which all the major strategic positions (Prime Minister, The Treasury, The Foreign Office, Home Secretary) are taken by the Conservatives. In order to obtain the positions of Deputy PM for himself, Business Minister for Vince Cable, Energy and Climate Change for Chris Huhne and 2 other cabinet positions, Clegg and the Lib Dems have had to make some major concessions, including; agreement to an additional £6 billion of additional cuts this financial year, abstention on the vote for introducing new nuclear power stations, agreeing to a cap on immigration, a referendum on AV rather than STV (the Lib Dem preference), agreeing not to oppose the "marriage tax", no mansion tax, and no opposition to the replacement of Trident.
Although the Conservatives have made some concessions including on capital gains tax and earnings linked state pensions, and have accepted a longer term aspiration to raise the tax allowance band to £10,000, on the whole the coalition has been mostly one of Lib Dem give and Tory take. Nevertheless, the coalition agreement was given overwhelming backing at the recent one-day Lib Dem conference with only a few dissenting voices. Having watched Cameron and Clegg take their vows, most of the Lib Dem party is still enjoying the honeymoon.
There are, however, three real tests of the Liberal Democrat support for the coalition just around the corner.
The first of these is George Osborne's announcement of how the £6 billion immediate reduction of the deficit will be implemented, probably on Monday 24th. In their respective manifestos, the Tories said they would cut £4 of spending for every £1 raised in tax, compared to the Lib Dems who wanted £2.50 of cuts for every £1 of tax. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, although both parties had identified some £11-12bn of public spending cuts they still had much higher levels of unspecified spending cuts still to identify.
In the case of the Lib Dems this amounted to another £35 billion but the Tories greater emphasis on cuts versus tax raising meant that they were looking for half as much as this again, with over £52 billion of public spending cuts needed to be found, or another £18 billion compared to the Lib Dems - so there will be close examination of the measures announced and the clues they might give to later targets for spending cuts.
Second test will be the delayed Thirsk and Malton election on May 27th . A relatively safe Conservative seat, this will be the first real chance to see what Liberal Democratic voters really think of the coalition government.
A major drop in the Lib Dem vote may well cause second thoughts in many Lib Dem ranks, especially if there is a major swing to Labour. The Greens have seen party membership jump by 10% with many of those new members being discontented Lib-Dems, whilst Labour say that they have had 13,000 new members since polling day, also including many Lib Dems. Losing members is bad enough but nothing worries politicians more than the prospect of losing votes, and the Lib Dems are no exception to this rule - a bad day in Thirsk could spell trouble for Nick Clegg.
The third test will be on June 22nd when George Osborne announces his emergency budget. Many Lib Dems are holding up the Tory commitment to increasing income tax allowances to £10,000 (from £6,475 for working age individuals) as a prime example of the concessions they have wrung from their coalition partners. Although there will not be an immediate rise to this level, many Lib Dems are expecting at least an increase of a £1,000 (which will cost some £5 billion per annum or most of the £6 billion immediate deficit reduction).
However, some commentators have speculated that the rise may only be a few hundred to around £7,000. Anything less than an increase to £7,475 for working age individuals may spark more dissent amongst the Lib Dem faithful especially if the budget aims to deliver the extra £18 billion of as yet unspecified Tory cuts referred to above. If even more additional Tory cuts are given priority over Lib Dem tax breaks, some may start to raise doubts about the level of "poodling" being done for the Conservatives.
For many Lib Dem supporters, the alliance between Clegg and Cameron may start to bring back memories of an earlier one - that between the two Davids; Steele and Owen. It may also be difficult for them to avoid remembering the images from the TV programme Spitting Image which portrayed the Liberal leader David Steele as being abject, worshiping and completely compliant to his alliance partner - in effect, Spitting Image portrayed Steele as Owen's poodle.
If Clegg fails to adequately demonstrate that the Conservatives are also making key concessions in the coalition government he may find that his fellow Liberal Democrats will start to associate his relationship with Cameron with that of the Spitting Image portrayal of the two Davids. The real disaster for the Liberal Democrats however may well be if the rest of the country start to associate Clegg with the image of Blair as Bush’s poodle.