Nick Clegg just does not get it. The Lib Dem leader has issued an excruciating apology for breaking his pre-election pledge to oppose any rise in tuition fees. Clegg, you will remember, paraded himself shamelessly on University campuses around the country brandishing a placard upon which he pledged to vote against any increase in fees in a brazen attempt to woo the student vote. The rest of course is history, and not a pleasant one from a Lib Dem perspective. Rather than fulfilling his promise, Clegg led his party into coalition and proceeded to treble tuition fees to £9,000. People are quite accustomed to politicians breaking promises. Many may even accept that it is sometimes necessary in the pragmatic, compromise strewn world of government. But this was something else. The reversal was so quick and so dramatic. It was not just a shift in position; it was a complete abandonment of a pledge so solemnly and deliberately made. For many who voted Lib Dem at the last election this was betrayal.
I do not blame Clegg for his decision to enter into coalition government. Given the electoral arithmetic he really had no choice. But he has never appreciated the strength of feeling amongst those who voted for his party in 2010 and who now feel violated. Many voted Lib Dem on the basis of their signature policies, of which tuition fees was one and opposition to deep and early spending cuts another. Both policies were instantly thrown to the wind upon entering government. It is fair to argue that as the junior coalition partner the Lib Dems had to make some significant concessions, but this argument cuts little mustard with voters. For them, Clegg is the embodiment of the dishonest, power crazed politician who will say anything to pick up votes. Many feel as if they have been used by Clegg as a vehicle to transport him straight to the heart of power. For them, Clegg will never be trusted again.
That is why this apology is so misguided. If Clegg seriously believes that it will convince people that he is once again trustworthy, that is he is once again worthy of a vote, he is sadly mistaken. Everything that Clegg does or says is now viewed through the lens of cynicism and opportunism. His name is badly tainted and people struggle to take him seriously. Even when he developed a back bone and stood up to the Tory rebels who derailed his plans for House of Lords reform, he gained no credit. Instead he was criticised for being foolish, petulant and disingenuous. He was accused of misinterpreting the coalition agreement to suit his own ends and of throwing the toys out of the pram for not getting his own way. Clegg hoped his decision to oppose Conservative plans to change the electoral boundaries would portray him in a new light, one less obsequious to his coalition partners. Alas not. No matter what Clegg does, no matter how noble his intentions, people simply do not trust him. Given his history of broken promises they will always perceive his actions as self-serving.
His recent apology will not alter this public perception. Once such a perception takes hold it is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, for a politician to shake it off. To make matters worse, in an interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson at the time of the tuition fee vote, Clegg insisted that he would not apologise for abandoning his pre-election pledge. Two years later, he has done just that. To be clear, Clegg promised not to raise tuition fees then trebled them. He said he would not apologise for doing so, now he has apologised. The timing of the apology is also important. It comes on the eve of his party’s annual conference where there are sure to be grumblings about his leadership. There are even rumours that he will be replaced as leader before the next election. Such timing is no coincidence. It also goes a long way to reinforcing the cynical, calculating and dishonest persona that Clegg has skilfully cultivated for himself. That is why this apology will not wash. It will only strengthen the resolve of many who voted for Clegg in 2010 to avoid doing so again.
BY: Thomas Raine