Sunday 1 December 2013

The staggering re-invention of Clegg

This is a post about an aspect of the benefits for immigrants debate last week which has gone without comment - and it isn't really about immigration, but let's get that bit out of the way first.

Not everyone has found themselves supporting Nick Clegg's qualified support for Cameron's proposal on benefits for East European immigrants in the first three months of their stay.  Including some people I usually agree with in every nuance, like Jonathan Calder.

I understand the argument that politicians should try to change perceptions not pander to them, but there may be moments where making that kind of stand simply drives people apart.  I don't know (I know, I should know).

But I want to draw a Liberal distinction here, between hospitality, open cultures and open borders for refugees, who have - after all - given so much back to the UK.  And, on the other side, encouraging people for boneheaded economic reasons to be footloose - and it may be that borders can be so open that they do that.

I believe in a multi-racial society.  I believe in travel and the transmission of ideas between cultures.  But I don't think that we should be discouraging community, and roots, and commitment to place.

I don't want to live in the kind of world where economic disadvantage can only be solved by getting onto a boat - as Norman Tebbitt's father famously got on a bike - and looking for work.  As if we just abandon towns, cities and nations as the American pioneers abandoned their land, having exhausted it, and move east.

It is no basis for a happy, fulfilled and peaceful world.  So yes, move if you have to - certainly if your life depends on it.  But otherwise, let's find the economic tools we need to regenerate places.  Don't let the narrow doctrine of comparative advantage lead us to abandon half the world.

But I must admit, that isn't the reason today for putting finger to keyboard.

It was at the end of the BBC news that I heard it.  They reported Cameron's plans and then, at the end of the headline - as if it was a throwaway line - they said: "The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has agreed to this."

I did a double take.  This was the BBC recognising what makes the difference between Cameron's proposal happening and it not happening, and it has huge implications for the way the two men are perceived.

Suddenly you realise that, behind every prime ministerial announcement, is this element of doubt in the minds of broadcasters.  Has he got permission for this?  Will it happen?

It really is staggering how far the DPM has travelled in just three years in post.  Gone are the days when he was the supplicant as the leader of the smaller party.  Now he appears as this supra-national, supra-political figure - hovering like a Lord Chief Justice over the political array - lending his benediction to some of Cameron's ideas and withholding it from others.

Perhaps the most skillful positioning, and despite a weekly radio phone-in, is that Clegg manages to appear careful and sparing in his public pronouncements, while Cameron's public pronouncements seem increasingly frequent and increasingly stressed.

I don't know how this has been achieved.  I don't even know if it is a good thing for the Lib Dems, let alone the coalition, though it must irritate the prime minister beyond all measure.  But it is astonishing and it is impressive.

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