NICK CLEGG’S defeat at Sheffield Hallam yesterday morning is, of course, a personal tragedy. It is also a cautionary political tale that could come back to haunt Jeremy Corbyn.
Seven years ago, he had been swept along on a tide of what the media liked to call Clegg-mania. Facing off on TV against Gordon Brown and David Cameron, it was he who captured the popular imagination. He was a voice of reason; a man of principle.
How ironic, then, that in sticking to the one principle on which he never budged, that Britain belonged in Europe, he should have been unseated by a party that doesn’t know where it stands on the issue.
It is hard to overstate the enormity of Labour’s victory in this corner of south west Sheffield. Hallam has never turned red before. Until 1997 it had been Conservative for almost a century.
I interviewed the main candidates there last week and I don’t think the new MP, Labour’s Jared O’Mara, will dispute that he did not expect to win. He accepted, he told me, that his party’s priorities lay elsewhere. He had never met Jeremy Corbyn.
Mr O’Mara is a political apprentice, selected at short notice, having never fought a seat before. He deserves much credit: he is a charity worker and music event organiser who has overcome cerebral palsy to get where he is.
Clegg was clear what had happened to him. He lost, he said, because of his “stubborn life-long belief” that we should remain in Europe.
But while that is undoubtedly part of the story, the rest of it lies closer to home. Sheffield Hallam has one of the highest proportions of graduates in the country, and for many there, the choice was between a party whose leader had promised to abolish tuition fees and a man who was complicit in the decision to raise them.
Clegg acknowledged as much when we spoke, recalling the “acrimony and controversy because I had been in government dealing with policies that weren’t always popular”.
Nevertheless, the swing to Labour, not the Tories, is a surprise. Hallam is an affluent area; it’s not a Corbyn sort of constituency, the Conservative candidate, Ian Walker, noted. The Labour-run council is hugely unpopular there for its policy of cutting down trees on residential streets.
The north west of Leeds saw a similar movement, with the popular Lib Dem MP, Greg Mulholland, also ousted by Labour.
What happened was this: Too many people were alienated by Theresa May and chose to take Jeremy Corbyn at face value. His wish to create a fairer society is, of course, shared by us all. But the details, unlike the leaves of those fallen trees in Sheffield, are blowing in the wind.
The next time – and that could be as soon as this October – he will face the same reckoning as Nick Clegg. He will be the department store Santa who is suddenly told he must pay for the toys himself.
Yesterday’s result will, at last, subject Corbyn’s manifesto to proper scrutiny. At the same time, his failure to crash and burn will cause many senior MPs who deserted his sinking ship two years ago to crawl back on board, and together they could present a moderated and more unified presence.
And what of Theresa May? Much has already been written, and her career written off, and for that she can blame only herself. In sweeping through the last five weeks like a headmistress who has just received a terrible Ofsted report, she betrayed a degree of incompetence that is frankly hard to explain. She made exactly the same miscalculation as her predecessor just 12 months earlier, and wasted our time on an election that was unnecessary and divisive.
Worse yet, she ran a campaign that ate at the values of her core voters. The one good thing to have come out of it is that her lack of judgement has been exposed before she sat down at the negotiating table of Europe.
I said at the beginning of this campaign that the polls meant nothing. They never have done. Back in 1977, I was at the Liberal party conference in Brighton, when David Steel signed a pact with Labour and told his delegates to prepare for government. But history tells us that it has never been a party of government, only of opposition. Nick Clegg, the one leader who had to put country before party and step up to the top table, knows that better than anyone.