Nick Clegg has had a tough few weeks. The Lib Dems took a drubbing in the May elections, and the party rank-and-file have really gone after their leader.
With the failure of the Oakeshott ‘coup’ it looks as if he’ll be safe through to 2015, but questions about his position refuse to go away.
When I think back to Nick Clegg just four years ago, it’s hard to comprehend just how much his public image has changed in that time.
This is a man who – for a politician at least – was extremely popular. His performance in the televised leader debates prior to the 2010 general election won him acclaim – and more importantly, votes.
What was it that people saw in him? To answer that I need look no further than myself.
In May 2010 I was a bright-eyed 19-year-old revelling in university life. I have never been loyal to any one party and was happy for my mind to be swayed. My mind was swayed to vote Lib Dem.
Part of the reason was undoubtedly my desire for fairness, something that I saw as being deeply embedded in the Lib Dem manifesto. As a student, the promise not to raise tuition fees also natually struck a chord.
But, in hindsight, it’s hard to downplay the role of Clegg himself. My impression of him, shared by many others, was a down-to-earth, fresh-faced, ambitious man who I could relate with. Brown was old and saggy. Cameron was posh and smarmy.
Even more than this, Clegg had what we might now call the ‘Farage factor’. Both Labour and the Tories were tarnished with the inevitable failures of governing over the past 30 years. Memories of ruthless Thatcher and egotistical Blair were unavoidably associated with the present leaders.
With no history of government, Clegg’s Lib Dems offered something different, something new, and the promise to clean-up politics was a big part of this.
So what happened? Why is it that we now consider Clegg to be just like the rest: a selfish politician completely out-of-touch with working people up and down the UK?
In 2010, the justification from Lib Dem HQ for joining the Tories in coalition was they were acting in the country’s best interests by forming a government and dealing with the financial crisis. All very noble of course, but political suicide.
As the minority partner they have been forced to compromise, unable to push their own agenda. For many people the most obvious example is tuition fees. This betrayal alone left such a bad taste (given the prominence of the pre-election pledge) that I could never vote for the party again while Clegg is leader. There are many others who feel the same.
Tuition fees, of course, only affect a minority of the electorate. One wide-ranging policy area in which Clegg could not afford to compromise was political reform. This is what had set Clegg apart – a promise that it would not be business as usual at Westminster.
Sadly, there has been no much-needed reform to the House of Lords. The party lost the AV referendum without putting up much of a fight. And earlier this year it was announced plans to allow voters to remove MPs between elections had been dropped.
On top of these failures, the Lib Dem party machinery has failed to take credit for almost any positive news which has come during the coalition’s existence so far.
The result: Clegg is now ‘one of them’. He has been institutionalised. That fresh-faced 43-year-old who lit-up the 2010 election now appears a greying, worn-out 47-year-old, completely out of ideas.
Because of his failure to deliver, what used to appear as refreshing honesty and a will-to-change now look like sinister, empty promises intended to mislead the public. With Nick Clegg at the helm, there is no chance for the Lib Dems at next year’s general election. Even with someone else as leader, they look doomed.
The party has been swallowed up by the political establishment - perceived by much of the public as a cohort of liars and cheats. The mantle of new kids on the block – those who can offer something different and refreshing - has been seized well and truly by UKIP.
By Rob Cox