Many politicians suffer a fall from grace. Tony Blair provides us with the most spectacular example, going from saviour in 1997 to reviled ‘war criminal’ just a decade later. Taking Downing Street he shook the hands of adoring crowds; now he needs ridiculous levels of security to keep those same crowds at bay. Gordon Brown suffered a similar fate. Taking office he was seen as a breath of fresh air, a remedy to New Labour’s spin; but after chickening out of calling an election, his fate was sealed. It seems laughable now, but back then he would have won a comfortable victory, securing a Labour government that would still be in place today, had it not been for a suddenly popular proposition for a tax-cut announced during the Conservative Party conference. Reeling from the sudden good press the Torys got, he bottled the one election he could have won.
This natural progression seems the same for most politicians. Even joke Prime Minister John Major was immensely popular when he took over from Margaret Thatcher. But no politician has gone from darling to demon in such a quick dive as Nick Clegg.
In many ways it’s to be expected; any politician taking part in a government dealing with such a huge budget deficit is bound to become unpopular, The doctor who severs the gangrene leg is necessary, but you won’t be inviting him round for breakfast (although you should). But why has it happened to acutely for Nick Clegg and not for David Cameron? The answers can be traced back to the last General Election.
Liberal Democrats have never had many allies in the media. As the campaigns kicked off, they were widely ignored and ridiculed. Polls suggested they were going to suffer a squeeze as supporters flocked to both the Labour Party and the Conservatives to tactically vote depending upon which side they feared the most.
And then the televised debates happened. Suddenly the public got political debate without looking through the prism of partisan media. The debate wasn’t filtered through the mind of a Times reporter, but direct from politician to viewer. This had a startling effect upon the polls. Suddenly the Lib Dems were in the game.
Following the first televised debate, the print media went into hysteria, suddenly realising that their influence was becoming undermined. Whereas before they knew they could print, “vote conservative” on election day and get the result they wanted, suddenly the public were thinking for themselves. A deluge of ridiculous anti-Clegg smears graced the front pages of the right-wing press in response. He had stolen their thunder and they would never forgive him.
When the results came in, Labour found it had pulled off an incredible victory: they had secured just few enough seats that they couldn’t form a coalition to stay in government. It was Christmas for the Labour party, they could now sit out the cuts in the safe knowledge that both their opposition parties would get the blame.
After taking over as leader of the party, Ed Miliband had two choices of how to deal with Liberal Democrats in government. He could either focus his attacks on the Tories to appear friendly to Lib Dems, smoothing the way for a Labour-Liberal coalition in the future, or he could target the Liberal Democrats in an attempt to destroy them as a party, giving those of the centre-left nowhere to go but back to Labour. In a move of pure Machiavellian cynicism he opted for the second.
And so the Labour attacks on the Liberal Democrats began, the flagship attack being the wilful ignorance of how coalitions work, painting compromises as ‘broken promises’. It didn’t seem to phase the Labour party that they had broken countless promises with a huge majority and nothing to stand in their way; the approach still became party policy.
While Labour began their offensive, Liberal Democrats were being targeted by the right wing press as a negative influence upon the coalition, and by the left wing press as traitors and oath breakers. But it wasn’t until the tuition fees debate that Nick Clegg’s role as scapegoat became properly defined.Two figures are most responsible for putting the knife into Clegg’s back. The first was Ed Miliband, keen to keep up the pressure, he painted the education bill as being ‘unfair’ despite it being more progressive than Labour’s policy. The second was Aaron Porter, then leader of the NUS and member of the Labour party. He wanted a graduate tax, so all graduates would pay an extra income tax once they started earning, instead the government introduced a fixed amount fee that would only be paid once they started earning. The two policies were pretty much the same.
But this was Aaron Porter’s time to shine and secure himself a place of honour in his Labour party. He whipped the NUS up into a frenzy, denouncing the astonishingly similar policy with hypocrisy that would make his Labour peers proud. The result was a student population convinced their future was being robbed, and who was to blame? Funnily enough it was the same man the Labour party had decided to target: Nick Clegg.
Just as before the election, the Liberal Democrats had no group in the media to argue their corner, and no televised debates to get their message directly across. Support for them crumbled and all the while the smears from both the right and the left increased.
And then along came the AV referendum which stepped up the anti-Clegg propaganda to incredible new levels. Joining in with the Labour smear campaign, the conservatives used Clegg as their poster-boy, accusing him of breaking promises despite the fact he was compromising to keep the government (they were a part of!) running.
Throughout the AV campaign, Ed Miliband has been playing his cards with the cunning of a true opportunist. He knows the best result for him would be a ‘no’ vote to disillusion the liberal left. Already today he is blaming Nick Clegg pre-emptively for a defeat, painting himself a the pro-reform candidate that the liberals should be standing behind. But all this is simply posturing. If he really wanted to win the referendum, he would have put a stop to the scaremongering and fictitious attacks launched by his own party on behalf of the ‘no’ campaign. Instead he allowed it to continue whilst making a half-hearted attempt to secure a ‘yes’ vote, just so he could say he did.
So how does the future look for Nick Clegg? Not good. Both the left and the right want to break up the coalition so they can have an immediate election and feast upon the remains of a slain Liberal Democrat party. This will galvanise them to keep up the pressure on the one man holding it all together.
There are reasonable attacks that can be made against the man: he’s dull, not a particularly inspiring speaker and lacks passion; but he certainly isn’t a liar, cheat or a monster. The saddest aspect of this horrendous bout of hatred is not the life of an earnest man being ruined, but that we the public could be so easily manipulated by such an obviously political attempt at character assassination. It had all the sophistication of a playground bully, and we are still falling for it.