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Clegg faces down the Lib Dem left over economic policy, but they remain a disunited party

CoalitionBy Mark Wallace
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Nick Clegg has emerged victorious from his calculated confrontation with the left of the Liberal Democrats over government economic policy. It's a personal victory for him and a political victory for the coalition, ensuring the principle of deficit reduction goes untouched (although the practice will continue to be difficult around the Cabinet table).

By the same token, today's result is a blow to the Lib Dem left and Vince Cable in particular.

Any political party is a coalition of sorts - we Conservatives certainly have plenty of tribes of our own, who disagree about plenty of issues. But Lib Demmery is a more divided creed than most.

Having been formed from a merger of two parties, it has never succeeded in bringing the left and centre any closer together. The rift extends to the social level as well as just the ideological - you don't see many deficit hawks hanging out over beers with the Keynesian wing of the party.

Today's debate and vote in Glasgow was a symptom of that affliction.

The Social Liberal Forum and the Liberal Left groups, the latter of which opposes the Lib Dems sitting in Coalition at all, have spent months plotting their grand coup against what they call Osbornomics.

Vince Cable publicly rejected Nick Clegg's request that he speak in favour of the economic policy, and even said he wouldn't attend the debate at all. The leadership had to work hard to persuade Tim Farron, another prominent left wing figure, to make the supportive speech instead.

The debate was a revealing one, and I don't mean because at only 4 the beard count was down on last year.

The loyalist camp chose their speakers carefully, from Sharon Bowles MEP who may be devastatingly inarticulate but is held in sufficiently high regard in yellow circles that they touted her for the job of Governor of the Bank of England, to Maajid Nawaz, PPC for Hampstead and Kilburn and a powerful orator.

The rebels, on the other hand, allowed themselves to get bogged down in rebutting fears over Monetary Policy Committee independence and the technicalities of moving amendments. They ranged from inadvertent double entendre about wanting to "touch on Ed Balls" through to such classic Lib Dem motivational slogans as "vote for Amendment 1, Amendment 2 and intellectual honesty".

In the end, the ordinary delegates showed some common sense and voted for Plan A, rather than to give succour to Labour.

Psammead Vince, despite his protestations, did show up and vote in favour of Clegg's motion - though he pointedly shunned the front row seating reserved for Ministers and plonked himself among the party membership, wearing an expression like a man with bare feet who has just stood on a slug.

It was a victory for Clegg's relative centrism, no doubt, but the split goes on. His opponents on the left may not be the most numerous, but they are certainly loud and active. They are now moving on to try to force him to reinstate the 50p tax rate, and have presumably already started plotting their grand uprising at Lib Dem Conference 2014.

The wider question is what does this mean for the psychology of the Lib Dem mainstream (in as much as such a beast exists)? I wrote yesterday of the struggle between fantasy and reality which still torments many of them - the longing for the warm, womb-like comfort of being in eternal opposition competing with the ambition to become and remain a party of government.

Today's vote certainly points to a welcome degree of pragmatism among many of the delegates (memorably, one of the rebel speakers actually criticised the idea that policies should be pragmatic) but it is not final proof that the Lib Dems are willing to make all of the tough decisions involved in being in government.

The economic strategy they supported is one the ideological left dislike, but it is also one that is working - backing a successful approach does not qualify as a tough decision.


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