Friday, 21 September 2012

The time for sadness is over

What exactly is Nick Clegg apologising for? Ostensibly it's the LibDem's failure to keep their promise over increasing tuition fees, but I'm inclined to think otherwise. Some think he should apologise for the coalition government's broader record. I think that is actually what he is doing.

Clegg and Vince Cable have both claimed that the timing of the apology was down to waiting for "the right moment", with the suggestion being that the public were not prepared to give them a hearing before now ("to be frank people were so angry they weren’t listening", claimed Cable on Newsnight last night). This is tosh. It's like Goering at Nuremburg saying the time was not right for an apology but if the Allies would give him another 5 years, so tempers could cool, he might then be able to say sorry to a more receptive audience. Is that too extreme an analogy? Consider the FA's recent decision to wait 23 years after Hillsborough to apologise for it's deadly disregard for fan safety, something which has not been in dispute since the original Taylor report. Were they just waiting for the "right moment"?

The time for making an apology is when it is demanded. So why did the LibDems delay? Presumably they hoped that the golden age that the coalition would usher in would push the memory of their inept opportunism to the back of everyone's mind. And they would've gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids, banging on about it all the time. Is it a coincidence that this comes in fresher's week, when students will be distracted by cheap booze and new sexual opportunities? Has it taken two years for Clegg to master the right level of hangdog sincerity, practising each morning in front of the bathroom mirror? That might explain his near-permanent look of secret sadness.

The timing of Clegg's apology-porn-vid has to be seen in the context of the LibDem's desperate plan to avoid electoral annihilation in early 2015. They need to distance themselves from the Tories, not just to offer a distinct policy option going forward, but to allow responsibility for the coalition's "achievements" to be apportioned. That will be the subtext over the next 30 months. Clegg is now banking on Cable being able to deliver sufficient initiatives that can be cast as stimulus, and business reform that can be presented as responsible and mature (unlike the Tory lunacy), to distract attention from welfare cuts, the evisceration of the NHS, and the failure to address the structural flaws of the economy. The Tories will be allowed to take credit for all of that. Expect to see much more of Cable and David Laws, and much less of Danny Alexander.

The strategic purpose of the tuition fees apology is to reset the LibDem's focus from the past to the future, changing the agenda from the already discredited coalition agreement to the debate on plan B. This not only draws a line under tuition fees, but pushes the failures over AV and Lords reform off-stage, and even leaves health and education on the margins. The big debate will be about "responsible stimulus" and growth. The LibDems clearly won't go into the next election promising more of the same, i.e. plan A part 2. That would be suicide, not least because austerians might as well vote Tory. The person whose heart may have sank most on seeing Clegg indulge his emotions is the increasingly isolated George Osborne.

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