It has been quite a year for Nick Clegg. He started it as the leader of a third party with no more than the hope of holding the balance of power in a hung parliament and is now Deputy Prime Minister.
But it has not all been plain sailing.
His decision to form a coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives was not welcomed by all in his party and many voters are reportedly withdrawing their support from the Liberal Democrats. And that was before the budget with its devastating cuts and VAT u-turn.
Today Nick Clegg will address a conference of his party’s MPs and councillors. He will defend his record in government so far, but there are likely to be some very uncomfortable questions from his colleagues.
There are a number of policy areas where there is disagreement between the leader and his party. The VAT rise is currently at the top of the list. During the election campaign Clegg warned against what he called “the Tory VAT bombshell”. But in government he backed a rise to 20%.
A minor revolt among Lib Dem MPs was the result when the matter came to the vote in the Commons. Bob Russell voted against the VAT increase while a further four backbench MPs supported an amendment calling for the rise to be limited to just 0.5%. Former party leader Sir Menzies Campbell abstained in a number of votes on opposition amendments, while his predecessor Charles Kennedy did not take part in any of the series of votes.
Other issues causing concern are the bungled schools cuts announced by Michael Grove, the compromise on the AV system for future elections and health policy, which many feel is very Tory dominated. Indeed former health spokesperson Sandra Gidley was quoted as saying that she could not see any of her party’s key heath policies in the coalition’s plans
Lib Dem councillors are also unhappy.
Many feel that Clegg’s strategy of pain now and hopefully success later may be fine for MPs who have a five year term to look forward to. But, as they will point out to Clegg, those in local government have to face the electorate next year.
The Lib Dem leader of Liverpool City Council, Warren Bradley, has said recently that his party faces being ‘wiped out’ as a result of their coalition with the Conservatives. And a poor set of local election results will only provide ammunition to those with real misgivings about the whole coalition deal.
The real fear of many Lib Dems is that their party’s identity is vanishing as the public increasingly views them as merely an extension of the Tories. They want Clegg and his Lib Dem colleagues in the cabinet to emphasise where there are clear policy differences – although Clegg will not want to weaken his alliance with Cameron.
Nick Clegg now has a challenging job on his hands. The initial excitement of their first taste of government in living memory appears to be wearing off for many of his own MPs. He now has to balance his responsibilities to the coalition he took his party into against the very real risks of a split amongst the Liberal Democrat ranks.
Clegg will undoubtedly face some difficult times ahead as he attempts to keep his party together.