WMN opinion: Clegg's big week could be make or break for his party
It is easy to overstate the magnitude of any week in a politician's life. If some of our leading Westminister figures of recent years had truly been "fighting for their political life" as many times as was reported they would have had more prize-fights than a heavyweight boxer. A week is, as Harold Wilson said, a long time in politics, which means an issue that seemed like it could spell political oblivion on Monday has very often been almost forgotten by Friday, as events move on.
But sometimes political leaders really do face genuinely career changing moments. And for Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, whose party conference got under way at the weekend, this is that week. He will, of course, still be the Lib Dem leader at the end of the week. He will still be deputy Prime Minister too. But there is surely little doubt that the way he performs and – crucially – the way rank and file Lib Dems respond to him, will set the scene for the second half of this coalition Government's term of office and very probably play a major role in determining whether it is Mr Clegg or another member of his party who faces the electorate as leader in 2015.
Many would not blame him if he took the easy way out. There is, reportedly, a cushy job in Brussels waiting for him in a year or two if he decides he has had enough of being lampooned, derided and generally used as a whipping boy by every political pundit and disgruntled back-bencher in the country. But all the signs are he is planning to give his party one more shot in the hope that, by emphasising the differences between the Lib Dems and the Tories, he can restore some credibility and some pride to his party before they next have to face the electorate.
Because it is the rank-and-file MPs and the loyal foot-soldiers out in the regions, including here in the Westcountry, where the impact of a continuing lacklustre performance by Mr Clegg will be felt the hardest. It is the MPs' seats in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset that will be lost; the council seats across the Westcountry that will fall to rival parties and the local constituency branches that will see their membership drop, their subscriptions dwindle and their influence fade away.
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Mr Clegg grabbed at power when he had the chance and, some now believe, sold his party's soul for the chance of a taste of Government. In truth, he had little choice. Coalition is about compromise and it is clear the Lib Dem influence has been felt in Government. But if the last two and a bit years have been about showing how the Lib Dems could behave in a grown-up way, tempering and modifying policies to suit a coalition with the Tories, the next two must be about demonstrating their unique qualities in the hope that voters still believe in them. If he can pull off that trick and hold onto seats at the election Mr Clegg will deserve his place in history. If not, Brussels might beckon for him – but it could be oblivion for his party.