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Nick Clegg can survive, and even prosper, if he's hated. What would destroy him as a politician is being made ridiculous.

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-12-03 at 15.42.21 Next week, the Commons votes on the Coalition's student finance proposals.  Today, Peter Oborne wrote that Nick Clegg is "Britain's most hated man", comparing the Deputy Prime Minister now to Norman Tebbit during the early 1980s.  Describing Clegg as "nice" and "gentle", Oborne went on to praise him as "an honourable and strong politician, who has acquitted himself with shrewd judgment and considerable courage" - arguing that Clegg shouldn't be blamed for striking compromises with David Cameron (since forming agreements with other parties, in the national interest, is a touchstone of Liberal Democrat belief), and that, in any event, Clegg has wrung significant concessions from the Conservatives (over raising tax allowances, softening prisons policy, introducing a pupil premium, gaining a referendum on AV and ending the Tories' inheritance tax proposals).

Oborne was clearly right on the second point (see Montgomerie's Law of the Coalition and Goodman's Coalition dilemma).  A large number of Party members believe that he's also right on the first, if the applause that Clegg's name won at October's Party conference is anything to go by.  (In our last members panel poll, the Deputy Prime Minister was more popular than Lord Strathclyde, Lord Young, Ken Clarke, David Willetts, Sayeeda Warsi, Oliver Letwin, Francis Maude, Patrick McLoughlin, Owen Paterson, Caroline Spelman, Cheryl Gillan and Andrew Mitchell.)  In my view, Oborne was also right about Tebbit.  The Chingford Skinhead, as he was sometimes known at the time, was hated by large parts of the left with the same foaming vehemence that they hated Margaret Thatcher.  It did him no harm at all: indeed, Tebbit seemed to thrive on hatred, much as deadly nightshade is said to thrive in shady soils.

Perhaps this was because hatred doesn't spring from contempt, or even indifference.  Hatred implies regard: if something's not worth regarding, it's not worth hating.  It is also, in a grudging way, an acknowledgement of strength.  If Clegg is indeed seen as a "strong" politician - Oborne's word - he's nothing much to worry about.  He will survive, and even prosper, no matter how often he's burnt in effigy or how much dog excrement is shoved through his letterbox.  What doesn't kill him will make him stronger.  What he cannot survive is being made ridiculous.  The Psalmist wrote:  "But I am a worm and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.  All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying..."  Once voters start shaking their heads and shooting out their lips when they see the Deputy Prime Minister, and begin laughing him to scorn, he's finished.

And ridiculous is exactly what he and his Liberal Democrat colleagues are in danger of becoming.  This week, we've had one Cabinet Minister (Vince Cable) tell the Commons that he's minded to vote for his own policy, but may abstain; another (Danny Alexander) say that he's trying to persuade his colleagues to vote for Government policy, although they may not, and the most important one of all - Clegg himself - do his best to avoid answering the question.  Some may claim that this exposure of hesitancy, muddle and alarm is honest and refreshing - part of the open, accessible "new politics" that the Liberal Democrats have long championed.  Voters are more likely to see it as evidence of incoherence and incompetence.  They may not be sticklers for constitutional propriety.  But they'll surely ask: "Are these guys in the Government or not?"  They'll repeat the question, with greater incredulity, if some Liberal Democrats vote with the Government, some against - and some abstain.

The Coalition Agreement envisaged the Liberal Democrats not supporting their own Government's policy on student finance, Trident and support for marriage.  The arrangement roused little comment at the time.  Simon Heffer's argued recently that it's unconstitutional.  It may or may not be, but in Britain - where we've become accustomed to one party government, MPs who support an administration backing its measures (at least most of the time), and political parties being scrutinised against their manifesto commitments - it risks looking, to use that word again, ridiculous.  The Government can survive a Liberal Democrat revolt next week.  It could survive defeat, come to that.  But Clegg's breach of his manifesto commitment on tuition fees - a pledge immortalised on camera in photo after photo - and the turmoil that's followed may linger in the public memory long after the matter's left the Commons.  The Deputy Prime Minster can flourish as Nasty Nick.  He can't as Calamity Clegg, as the rival Chris Huhne leadership campaign once tried to label him.


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