Bernard Ingham: Can Clegg save his party from the dustcart of history?

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THERE are two ways of looking at this week’s Liberal Democrat party conference. One is summarised by that old saying “After the Lord Mayor’s show comes the dustcart”. The other is of a party in search of a future.

They have gone to Glasgow to salvage anything worthwhile that is left, after the Tory Party machine last week purloined their proposed £2,000 rise in the tax threshold to £12,500, while also wondering whether they have a future, with the polls at worst reducing their vote to six per cent.

Their leader, Nick Clegg, seems to 
have no doubt about that future. It is to anchor whichever major party – Labour of Tory – that cannot win a working majority firmly to the centre. He does 
not seem to trust either of them out of his sight.

But he can only exercise a measure of control over them – and remain Deputy Prime Minister – if the voting British public remains just as untrusting: that is, that in a tight finish they make a third party necessary to form a viable government.

And he can perhaps only achieve that if the Lib Dems outperform Ukip as a vote splitter, though I must admit that the idea of a Labour/Ukip coalition seems fanciful.

It would no doubt be immensely entertaining watching them bite lumps out of each other, but it would not be in the national interest.

So, are the Lib Dems preparing to meet their doom? Not really. Nor do they deserve to do.

As readers of this column know, I respect their acceptance of responsibility in entering government and their performance on the overriding issue before the coalition.

They have remained impressively loyal to the aim of eliminating Gordon Brown’s awful £156bn deficit, even if their liberal streak has put a brake on it.

They deserve credit for that constancy and may well get it at the general election. Whatever the polls may say, some of the 56 Lib Dem MPs are firmly cemented into their constituencies. They will not be easily shifted.

They would face a real crisis if 
Clegg were to lose his seat in Sheffield Hallam because I do not see a natural successor. Vincent Cable seems to spend most of his time exhibiting his socialist credentials.

This may go down well with nearly half the Lib Dems but that only raises the question as to whether their leader’s job is to anchor his own party to the centre, too. Cable would not do that.

Surely, only a masochist would aspire to the post.

Clegg, a sensitive plant, is not cut out for that role, as his various hurts and spites show. Currently, he is calling on Theresa May, the Home Secretary, to apologise for suggesting that he has put children’s lives at risk for blocking security measures.

Which brings me to the real problem facing Clegg and the Lib Dems as the election approaches. They have perpetuated out of spite – and no doubt out of their own as well as Labour’s electoral advantage – the inequality in constituency populations.

Exactly a quarter of Lib Dem MPs are drawn from Scotland and Wales where the over-representation problem generally lies.

Indeed, Clegg’s entire ministry seems to be defined by what the Lib Dems have blocked rather than by what they have achieved. My far-from-exhaustive list of policies he is proud to have stopped runs to 18 – from cutting inheritance tax to ditching the Human Rights Act; from relaxing both child care ratios to reduce costs to parents and the Equalities Act; and from removing housing benefit for under-25s to encouraging more free schools.

After his major U-turn on student tuition fees, it is a curiously negative approach to government.

It is not exactly an incentive to the public to vote Lib Dem when they know they stand between them and, for example, an end to inheritance tax, the human rights nonsense, reforming the welfare system and any change in our relationship with Europe, thereby ensuring uncontrolled immigration.

Perhaps all this will help to concentrate the public’s minds over the next eight months.

We have now experienced a peacetime coalition. It may have untidily served 
its purpose but it has far from demonstrated that it is to be preferred to a strong government with its own mandate.

In my book, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems – and Ukip for that matter – have become a test of the electorate’s resolve, not to say intelligence.

Do they want action or fudge? We 
don’t need to ride into the future on a dustcart.