Why is Clegg so cheerful?

Peter KellnerPresident
September 19, 2011, 7:43 PM GMT+0

For a man whose poll ratings are terrible, and those of his party no better, Nick Clegg looks remarkably chipper. YouGov President Peter Kellner suggests reasons why the Lib Dem leader looks so cheerful

Perhaps he never looks at the polls. Publicly, most politicians say they don’t: privately they read them avidly. I doubt that Clegg is an exception. He knows full well – as preconference polls that YouGov conducted for the Sun and Sunday Times show – that:

  • The Liberal Democrats are flatlining on around 10% of the vote, less than half the 24% they achieved in last year’s general election.
  • 53% of those who voted Lib Dem last year aren’t sure what it now stands for.
  • 57% of the public agree that ‘the Liberal Democrats have broken their promises and betrayed their supporters’. Only 25% disagree.
  • Clegg is the least highly regarded of the three main party leaders. Only 24% think he is doing well, while 66% think he is doing badly. His rating has tumbled 20 points since last year’s conference

Why, then, does Clegg look so bouncy? Does he display a brave front in public, only to collapse with depression when the camera lights are switched off? I have seen no evidence of this, and don’t know anyone who has. He really is upbeat. Why?

Here’s my theory. There are two completely different ways to view the Liberal Democrats. One – the view of most political commentators – leads to one conclusion; the other – what I believe to be Clegg’s own view – leads to exactly the opposite conclusion.

The commentariat concentrate on the Lib Dems’ electoral performance and prospects. These are, indeed, dire. This year’s local and Welsh and Scottish elections, and AV referendum, were disastrous. Next year’s local elections could see their councillor base, the source of much of the party’s energy in recent years, shrink further. The coming parliamentary boundary changes look like costing the party proportionately more seats than their opponents. The party could well lose half or more of its seats at the next general election, even if its national vote recovers to, say, 15% or so.

Take those factors together, and one is tempted to draw parallels with the plant at Kew Gardens that made news a few years back when, after being dormant for decades, it suddenly sprouted exotic flowers – only to give off a terrible stench and subsequently die.

Now for the rival view. For decades the Liberals and Liberal Democrats have been an irrelevance. Before last year, they had had no cabinet ministers since 1945. Their leaders had had roughly the same influence as the head of a medium-sized think tank. They advanced fresh ideas, some of which were actually rather good, and the best of which were adopted by one or both of the two big parties. Two of the most influential British thinkers of the twentieth century were both Liberals: John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge.

However, ambitious politicians become MPs not to influence thinking from the outside, but to become ministers and shape policy from the inside. Until last year’s general election, this role had been denied to Liberal and Lib Dem MPs for 65 years. Now the party has five cabinet ministers and more than a dozen junior ministers; for the first time in living memory, announcements of government policy are being made at a Lib Dem party conference. Nick Clegg is doing what he came into politics to do, and what none of his seven predecessors achieved – govern. That, I judge, is why he remains cheerful.

That said, he can’t be happy about the way people have voted this year and what they are telling pollsters. The question is, how much does this take the shine off being in government? My guess is, he is less concerned about this than the commentariat, and for this reason: he went into coalition much as someone might accept a fixed term contract. Consciously or subconsciously, he gave himself five years to do as much as he could as Deputy Prime Minister to advance his values and his policies. He believes – and with good reason – that he is making a difference. As for what happens in 2015, his demeanour suggests that his view is: let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.

Over the weekend, press reports of a new book said Clegg has promised his wife, Miriam, that he would serve only one term as Deputy Prime Minister. He has denied making any such promise. Of course he denies it: to admit such a plan would be to make himself a lame duck. But I wouldn’t bet too much on him leading his party at the next election. He could decide to quit shortly beforehand having spent the best part of five years at the heart of government and doing what he genuinely believes is right for the country. He will then be only 48, and young enough to embark on another high-profile career, in Britain or abroad. I’m not saying that this is his definite, conscious plan – but even if it merely lurks in the recesses of his mind as a possible option, the puzzle as to why he is so cheerful would be solved.