Elton John once famously sang that sorry seemed to be the hardest word. However, as Nick Clegg found at yesterday, on the eve of a conference of Lib Dems baying for blood, with your job on the line and faced by a public that quite openly hates you, it actually slips out quite easily. And so it was that Nick Clegg decided to grovel to the British public yesterday in a rather pathetic video message on the eve of the Lib Dems annual conference.
The intentions behind Clegg’s message are obvious. Firstly, he probably genuinely is sorry. Not sorry that he’s forcing many of the poorest to reconsider going to university by trebling tuition fees but sorry that he managed to, with one fatal move, place his party on a collision course with voters. Clegg’s shameful reversal struck at the heart of Lib Dem voters, who expected their party to stand tall in coalition, not to be bullied by the Tory party, yet Clegg’s reneging on the Lib Dems’ promise to abolition tuition fees was a reversal too far. It not only hit at the student vote, previously very generous to the Lib Dems compared to the country as a whole, but also moved the party towards the right-wing, whilst Labour moved away from their days on the right under Blair and retook the space that the Lib Dems had filled since Blair dismayed Labour’s core support. In reneging on one of his party’s central promises then Clegg, in one fell swoop, split the Lib Dem vote, losing a large chunk. This explains the real reason why Clegg is sorry.
However, perhaps as some Lib Dems have suggested, Clegg’s apology with be seen as a breath of fresh air within the country? The same Nick Clegg that voters were attracted to, the man who was different to the other politicians, may have proven the validity of these credentials by apologising, a move rarer in the Westminster village than a heart in the Tory party. Well, no. The truth is that Clegg’s apology looks opportunistic and is simply too little too late.
Firstly, the necessity of Clegg’s backtracking over the initial problem simply proves that the Lib Dems were unacquainted to, and unready for, the power thrust upon them by the coalition agreement. The Lib Dems, in a desperate measure to garner support, appear to have been making all the right noises probably presuming that they, once again, would be out of power. Therefore, when they found themselves in the middle of a squabble between the two larger parties, both of whom wished to court the Lib Dems into coalition with them, their policies suddenly became important, and the truth is they didn’t stack up. If Clegg is now admitting (as both the Labour and Tory parties realised prior to the 2010 election) that abolishing tuition fees was unrealistic, the question remains why on earth did he ever commit the Lib Dems to the policy? Committing to unrealistic policy measures such as this when outside of government shows the voters a level of political immaturity that is simply scandalous.
Furthermore, Clegg’s apology looks even more opportunistic when we consider his other reneged upon promises which he is yet to apologise for: one example being from a conference speech a number of years ago when he has this to say: “Will I ever join a Conservative government? No!” He is yet to apologise for this. He is also yet to apologise for the rise in VAT which he promised to oppose. He also promised to protect the NHS and is now standing idly by whilst the Tories happily take it apart and sell it off to private companies. Whilst I realise that the Lib Dems, being the smaller party in the coalition cannot have their way on every policy measure, you would think that there would be some kind of pre-drawn line based on principles such as the protection of the poor and public services such as the NHS. The lack of apology, or even mention of, these further policy failings proves just how opportunistic and deceitful Clegg’s ‘apology’ is. It is not simply luck that the deputy prime minister has chosen to apologise for the one policy change that still really rankles with the public and is particularly blamed on the Lib Dems.
The truth is that Clegg is ruined in the eyes of the voting public and this is most likely an irreparable relationship. Clegg has consistently broken policy pledges and allowed the Tory party to use Lib Dem principles as a welcome mat on the steps of Downing Street. It is time for Clegg to stand up for Lib Dem principles or stand aside to allow someone who will to lead the party. In the same conference speech where Clegg lied about joining the Tories he said that “everyone wants to be in our [the Lib Dem’s] gang”. The sad truth for Clegg is that no-one wants to be in his gang anymore, not even his own party.