Eighteen months after the general election, just as the coalition government is about to unveil its make-or-break plans to revive the economy, Nick Clegg is at a political crossroad.
Are the Liberal Democrats going to continue presenting themselves as the coalition’s conscience – the party of “all things to all men” – or will Clegg be able to persuade his colleagues that they should focus their efforts on those policy areas where they do have responsibility and could establish some long-term political credibility?
Perhaps Clegg should rue the day when he and David Cameron divided up the spoils after the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats joined forces following the 2010 general election and he failed to carve out a more clearly defined role for himself as the Deputy Prime Minister.
Rather than having an all-embracing brief – and trying to be part of the action across the water front – would he have been better following the example of John Prescott who had specific responsibilities such as the environment and transport while also fulfilling the deputy’s role?
The Labour government benefited from the arrangement and so did Prescott: he had real authority in several keys policy areas and when required stood in for Tony Blair as acting Prime Minister. That split function had clarity in media terms and there were none the mixed messages which now plague Clegg. Just think of the difference it might have made if Clegg had been Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary; that would have given him and his party some real clout.
By striving in his present role to have a line of his own on everything which the government does and says, Clegg inevitably finds that on too many issues he is at odds with Prime Minister. His mixed messages only encourage journalists to do even more to try to expose splits between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.
He has run himself ragged in the process and ended up leaving the public even more confused than before about what the Liberal Democrats stand for and whether their continuation in the coalition is sustainable.
The one strong card which the Liberal Democrats might be able to play come the general election in 2015 is that of presenting themselves as having been reliable coalition partners who went the distance in trying to get the British economy back on track.
Tuesday’s autumn statement (29.11.2011) from the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is a make or break moment for Clegg and his cohorts. Unless they can unite with the Conservatives around a set of measures to boost the economy while cutting the deficit they may well have left it too late to turn the tide of disenchantment sweeping the Liberal Democrat membership and hence their ability eventually to convince the electorate that the party knows where it is going.
Clegg’s New Year resolution should be to end his days as a rent-a-quote on all and sundry and instead devote his efforts to shoring up the Liberal Democrats record in business and energy given the shaky performance of Vince Cable as Business Secretary and incoherence of Chris Huhne as Energy Secretary.
Surely the goal for Clegg should be to establish the Liberal Democrats as a force to be reckoned with – a party that come 2015 will have to be wooed by both the Conservatives and Labour – rather than appearing muddled and ineffective as they do today; and to do that they need to be able to point to some real achievements.