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Conservatives worry about Clegg's increasingly petulant reaction to EU veto

By Tim Montgomerie
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Conservative insiders are worried that the fallout from the EU veto might be greater than they first expected. While Lib Dems may be unable to reverse the veto (which Cable brazenly told Andrew Marr was a political act by Cameron) they might sabotage other Coalition reforms, notably on public service reform, deregulation and post-riots policy. "We are now dealing with a much less happy partner," one senior Tory told me, "everything suddenly seems more difficult... thankfully the Christmas break is coming and perhaps we can start fresh in the new year". Very unseasonal has been today's Lib Dem attack on Tory family policy. It's seen as part of Clegg's "lashing out".

Here are seven observations on Nick Clegg...
  1. The Deputy PM started well as the Orange Book reformer... notably strengthening the welfare reform agenda and cutting income tax for the low-paid - but he has lost his early promise. He didn't keep patience with 'the Reeves plan' and its three stages of focusing on governing before moving to party renewal and then differentiating. This has meant the early promise of the radical Coalition and its 'grand bargainery' has not been maintained.
  2. Nick Clegg's defining act of the Coalition was to u-turn on tuition fees. He might, might, might have changed to the right policy but he broke a clear promise to voters. His petulant, inconsistent and cowardly response to the EU veto has reinforced voters' doubts about him. In overnight polling we learn that just 66% think Nick Clegg has handled the EU summit fallout compared to 15% who think he's handled it well. Only 7% see Nick Clegg as a strong leader; 54% see him as weak.
  3. Clegg is at least as much a prisoner of his own party as Cameron. The contrast to Clegg's media appearances in the hours immediately after the veto and those 48 hours afterwards were substantial. He was "got at" by the likes of a very angry Paddy Ashdown.
  4. Cameron treats Clegg better than the other way round. The PM agreed the EU negotiating position with his Deputy and should have expected a little more solidarity from Clegg - rather than the now famous disappearing act. The Liberal Democrats have been particularly bad in briefing against the Tories' compassionate credentials. The latest in a long line of examples being the LD claim that "getting Tories to help jobless is "like getting a vegetarian to go and buy a kebab".
  5. Osborne is Clegg's ally. There is a view among Lib Dems that George Osborne is their enemy because the Chancellor is always worrying about building a Tory majority. In reality Osborne's number one priority at the moment is keeping the Coalition sweet. Since the veto Osborne has been trying to calm things down while, surprisingly, it is William Hague who wants Cameron to seize the moment and strike a more Eurosceptic posture.
  6. Clegg needs to be more strategic and less tactical. Cameron has concluded that Clegg has never made the transition from third party leader to Deputy PM. The Lib Dem leader doesn't seem to realise that he no longer needs to shout to get attention. Every word from a Deputy PM matters. Cameron thinks Clegg needs to pick a few issues and own them but they need to be positive and he shouldn't define himself as an opponent of the Conservatives.
  7. All is not lost for Clegg. Today's YouGov poll finds that voters don't think the Lib Dem position will improve if Cable, Huhne or Farron succeeds Clegg. I still believe Clegg must step down before the election but Clegg has time on his side and the hope that things might change. The parliament is still relatively young and in Sherlock, Reeves and Astle he has a very good inner team. Lord Ashcroft's poll of marginal seats showed that the Lib Dems will probably hold many more seats than their national poll rating suggests. If Clegg was wise he'd display more patience and less petulance.


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