Clegg should hold his nerve

THERE is only one realistic option open to a chastened Nick Clegg, and also his embattled party, after the Liberal Democrats paid a heavy electoral price for their part in the coalition’s cuts programme. He must hold his nerve and hope that the coalition’s five-year plan delivers sufficient economic growth to neutralise the current discontent.

The alternative – the Lib Dems embarking upon an introspective leadership contest or even walking away from the coalition – will simply see the Government disintegrate and the party wiped out in any ensuing election by voters unwilling to tolerate such selfishness.

It is far better, despite the party’s obvious disappointment in losing its cherished dream of electoral reform, to influence the policy process from inside Whitehall rather than the sidelines.

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Mr Clegg’s party needs reminding of this as its difficulties eclipse the political upheaval under way in Scotland after pro-independence SNP swept to power under Alex Salmond, a potentially seismic shift of opinion that could threaten the UK’s future existence.

It was fuelled, to some extent, by the dramatic collapse of Lib Dem support – a collapse replicated across the Yorkshire where Mr Clegg’s party suffered, perhaps unduly, because the Tories remain a negligible force in cities like Sheffield and Hull.

Yet this does not explain why the Lib Dems suffered such a torrid backlash – while David Cameron’s Conservatives endured minimal losses and Labour failed to make the gains that Ed Miliband anticipated when he travelled, ironically to Scotland, to launch his party’s “fight-back”.

As such, Mr Clegg has every right to be perplexed 12 months after taking the responsible decision to form a government in the national interest.

There are four clear reasons. First, the Lib Dems under-estimated – as Lord Ashdown admitted – the public’s inability to differentiate consensus and betrayal on issues like student tuition fees.

Second, the Tories remain ruthless operators who have ensured that the Lib Dems have suffered a disproportionate amount of collateral damage for the coalition’s mistakes. Mr Clegg has been hung out to dry on too many occasions.

Third, the vanity of key Lib Dem Ministers – Vince Cable and Chris Huhne in particular – is unhelpful.

And, fourth, the decision to accelerate the flawed AV referendum process was not shared by an electorate more concerned by the economy – even though the Tory-endorsed “dirty tricks”, triggered, to some extent, by dubious conduct on the part of some over-excited Lib Dem campaigners, did not help Mr Clegg’s cause.

Despite this, Mr Clegg and the Lib Dems have achieved much in the past year – particularly their efforts to lift the poor and low-waged out of poverty. Their greatest test, however, begins now – and that is regrouping, and proving, that they’re serious political players driven by the long-term national interest. Party discipline, which served the Lib Dems well during the coalition’s formation, will be critical.

They cannot, however, be expected to get on with the task in hand alone. It also requires a statesman-like act on Mr Cameron’s part, recognition that his party’s AV tactics were disreputable – and a need for the Tories and Lib Dems to share the coalition’s successes and its failures, including a recognition that the Government is supposed to be a team.

For, without Mr Clegg’s continued support, the Prime Minister would be facing a general election – whether he liked it or not – and at a time when the electoral jury is still out on Ed Miliband’s leadership.

In short, this is a time for the mature, grown-up consensus politics that was promised a year ago – and which has been so absent during the bitter, and unfulfilling, debate on AV.