There are still some people who chuckle in disbelief when John Humphrys, Martha Kearney or Eddie Mair begin a news item with the words “Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg”. Watching Clegg address his party for the first time since becoming DPM, giggles gave way to jaw-dropped incredulity as the wheels of the coalition bandwagon start to come off.
For decades, one of the most amusing political side-shows of the year was the annual Liberal Party Conference. The in-consequence and irrelevance of these gatherings was encapsulated in the national belly laugh produced when David Steel told the faithful in 1981 to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. Now re-styled, re-branded and re-hashed as Liberal Democrats and actually in government, the party conference remains as insignificant and as meaningless as it was in the days when Liberal MPs could comfortably hold a meeting in the back of a Ford Zephyr. Then, grass roots members could pass all kinds of resolutions safe in the knowledge that actual power would never be theirs. Now, however, resolutions will be passed safe in the knowledge that the Liberal Democratic leadership will, in the name of pragmatism, ignore them.
Delegates in Liverpool rejected the coalition nonsense policy on “free schools” and academies. But even before the issue was debated, grandees with a comfortable seat in cabinet dismissed such belligerent militancy and, incidentally a manifesto pledge, as a distraction to the holy task of turning yellow blue. Set against the background of Libdem councillors defecting to Labour and against a lovely blue stage set, Clegg delivered a defensive speech in the manner of a married man caught philandering with a lady of the night. “Stick with us”, he pleaded, “we will change Britain for good”. Having reassured his family, he returns to his courtesan with a my-wife-doesn`t-understand-me look in his eye.
About half of his relatively short speech was given over to stating and re-stating to woeful economic situation inherited from the previous government and how the dreadful deficit has to be reduced as soon as possible. This is in marked contrast to what he and his party said in the run up to the election when he said in a televised debate that immediate cuts in public services would be disastrous and lead to double dip recession. He placed great emphasis on the irresponsibility of public borrowing and, rather disturbingly, compared our global economy to a household budget. He asked delegates if they expected their children to pay their credit card bills. Perhaps the Clegg and Cameron household budgets include nuclear deterrents, wars, universal healthcare and education but most of us are struggling with the mortgage, utility bills, food and clothing.
Having denounced reckless borrowing, our DPM was able to announce a new coalition policy that allows local councils to borrow money for new development in the hope of having the money paid back at some unspecified and uncertain time in the future. He also announced that the capping of local council tax by central government would cease. This was greeted with applause in the hall. After claiming that borrowing has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy, Clegg is devolving borrowing power to the likes of Walsall council who are about as financially adept as a drunken lottery winner or premier league footballer in a whore house.
The defecting Libdem councillors in Liverpool, Devon, Barnsley and Clegg`s own Sheffield constituency have spoken of their disillusion that party policy has been dumped in favour of the opportunity to order baked potato or chips at cabinet lunches. They had expressed the hope that Libdems in cabinet would be the conscience of the coalition but have now found that people who voted Libdem, actually voted Tory. In Wolverhampton, the Conservative Libdem coalition fell apart after Libdem Claire Darke defected to Labour. The coalition is back in place though after a mysterious Libdem party “facilitator” caught the first train from Euston to tell local councillors what to think.
Even formally loyal Conservative councillors are unhappy with the chaos masquerading as a moral crusade. The Tory deputy leader of Sandwell council, Elaine Costigan defected to Labour in protest against the deranged decision by Pipsqueak Gove to axe the Building Schools for the Future programme. Incidentally, Clegg said in his speech that capital programmes had not been cut but made no mention of BSF.
Should this unelected coalition government, brought to power without any mandate and with an agreement written by the permanent cabinet secretary rather than the party leaders. manage to survive its term until the next scheduled election, then the future for Clegg and the Liberal Democrats is at best uncertain. Even a watered down referendum on Alternative Voting is unlikely to save the DPM from a hastily arranged memoir and lecture tour and a cobbled together election campaign to enter the House of Lords.
Following his speech, the Liberal Democrats are running at 11% in an opinion poll, the equivalent of political annihilation. The unspoken message in the Clegg speech to party activists is; “go back to your constituencies and prepare for oblivion” and, for good measure, prepare for a good kicking in the local elections next May.
Within hours of his speech denouncing irresponsible public borrowing, the Office of National Statistics revealed that the government borrowed a record breaking £15.9billion in August. So rather than reducing debt, Nick and his chums are increasing the deficit even as they slash and burn their way through public services. He is correct is stating that he is about to change the country for good as, if they carry on like this, there may be no way back.