I have a confession of sorts to make. In my heart of hearts – and against my better judgement – I feel just a little bit sorry for Nick Clegg.
I have a confession of sorts to make. In my heart of hearts – and against my better judgement – I feel just a little bit sorry for Nick Clegg. Perhaps it’s the pleasure I derive from seeing red-faced Tory backbenchers sweating over the influence they think he has over government policy. Perhaps it’s the fact that alongside David Cameron, he occupies the favourable position of the lesser of two considerable evils. Or perhaps I merely feel sorry for him. It’s probably that, really.
So when I heard that the Deputy PM had put together a video to express his heartfelt sorrow for the tuition fee debacle, I couldn’t bring myself to be wholly cynical. This was Nick Clegg’s chance to accept that the rise in tuition fees was wrong, to kiss and make up with the students who helped to put him into office and commit himself to repairing the damage.
Except, as it turned out, Clegg did nothing of the sort. His ‘apology’ was a pathetic fudge. He didn’t try to atone for betraying those who trusted him; and he certainly didn’t apologise for waving through the most regressive piece of public policy in a generation. In fact, he defended it.
Anybody who has watched the video – or, indeed, any of the numerous remixes – will realise that far from apologising for breaking his promise not to raise fees, Clegg actually apologised for making it in the first place. He claims it was ‘unaffordable’. That, I’m afraid, is both factually dubious and breathtakingly patronising. ‘Did you vote Lib Dem because you believed in dropping tuition fees, or at least keeping them down? If so, silly you! Didn’t you know there was a recession on?’ might as well have been the message he delivered.
Unwittingly, it seems, he has managed to put himself in the position of the cheating husband who can’t bring himself to admit his guilt – and so resolves instead to heap the blame upon his unfortunate spouse: ‘Sorry dear, I was never going to stay faithful. You never should’ve married me in the first place really.’ Clegg’s apology, then, is terrible politics. That’s not just my judgement – it’s already been reflected in the polls. There were those who thought that his approval ratings couldn’t sink any lower. Apparently they can. But it really ought to be obvious for the Lib Dem leadership. If they were to regain the trust of students – and the wider electorate – then they should have apologised properly, sincerely and unreservedly. Of course, some would never forgive them in any case. But I might have. Or at least I would have. Now I certainly won’t. Any real apology – already extremely unlikely – would look absurd in the light of this week’s half-hearted attempt.
The inevitable result of the flip-flopping on tuition fees is the decline of the Liberal Democrats in British politics. Without the progressive votes that helped put them into power in 2010 they can look forward to a brutal election result in 2015, and they may not regain the sort of support they enjoyed before the coalition for a generation.
That seems a shame, given that the three-party system always seemed preferable to the Labour-Conservative duopoly. But we can’t afford to shed any tears for the Lib Dems: they have had their chance and blown it. And like a belligerent child, they have refused to acknowledge any real wrongdoing.
Nick Clegg has another three years left in office if he and David Cameron can stay friends. He might as well enjoy them, because they will probably be his last. So his message to the rag-tag of Lib Dem MPs at this year’s party conference should have been pretty simple: go back to your constituencies and prepare for retirement.