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Anthony Browne

Anthony Browne: Nick Clegg's pandering to his base is out of political necessity, rather than genuine conviction

It is good party politics and probably good Coalition positioning - but it's not good government. The announcements of Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Lynne Featherstone and Danny Alexander will help keep their grass roots happy. Clamping down on executive pay, defending the 50p tax, proposing a mansion tax on the rich, promoting gay marriage, describing Conservatives as political enemies, attacking eurosceptics, and defending green levies will all obviously go down well with the Liberal Democrat's left-wing activists, who want some red meat as the price of being in power with the Tories. Huhne and Cable may be comfortable with this, but my guess is that Nick Clegg isn't.

Clegg is more at odds, politically, with his grass roots than either David Cameron or Ed Milliband; he is instinctively a classical liberal, both economically and socially, frustrated with the simple left-wing platitudes of his activists. When he was the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, he invited me to share the main conference platform with him so I could challenge his activists' complacency on immigration; and when he became party leader I got him to do his first big speach at Policy Exchange (of which I was then director). He made a passionate case for the party to support lower, rather than higher, taxes - or as I said when introducing him, he was trying to put the liberalism back into the Liberal Democrats. He was challenging his base, just as Cameron did when he became leader - in stark contrast to Red Ed. So pandering to his base now is out of political necessity rather than some deep-felt desire.

It will clearly make life easier for Liberal Democrat ministers within their restive party. It might help give Liberal Democrats political definition as the people who are injecting a solid left-wing agenda into what they portray as an otherwise nastily right-wing Conservative government - the Lib Dem sugar coating of the Tory pill. But it probably does the Coalition government as a whole few favours in terms of winning support from the public. The main audience of their speeches should not be the activists inside the conference hall, but the great British electorate outside. It was one of Tony Blair's strengths as Labour leader that he used the conference platform not to pander to his party base, but to challenge it, and to sell his government to the British people. The Liberal Democrats are showing they are more interested in their position in the Coalition, than the Coalition's position in the country.


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