The problem for the Lib Dems, I concluded recently, was that Nick Clegg would have to make himself heard above the sound of an increasingly tabloid Tory approach. It was ever thus for a third party in British politics, even one with over sixty MPs.
Yet today, with his party’s motion on the right of former Gurkha soldiers to settle in the UK, Clegg has made himself heard. He now has an opportunity rarely given to the leader of a third party: to make his pitch to the electorate, and with a General Election no more than a year away. However, he may have a difficult course to steer.
Clegg and his party carried today’s vote not only by attracting defections from Labour, but more significantly by gaining the more or less total support of the Tories. And here is the greatest hazard that he must negotiate.
David Cameron has latched on to the Gurkha issue in an act of shameless opportunism. Clegg had been ploughing a lone furrow on the issue; Cameron has joined in merely to defeat the Government. He may sympathise with the Gurkhas, but will value the photo opportunities alongside Joanna Lumley more. As I discussed previously, history tells any Liberal leader that getting too close to the Tories is not a good thing.
So Clegg must shut out any background noise from Young Dave and his chums. He has the stage. The electorate, I suspect, would like to hear him. And what might just go down well is someone – anyone – who can show some leadership. Let me give a definition of that term.
The economist and commentator J K Galbraith put it directly: “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership”.
Brown has, today, had another lapse of judgment. Cameron is good at play acting, shouting down the Government, and acts of opportunism. Neither of them are committing themselves – not with any conviction - to confront that major anxiety.
Thus the opportunity for Clegg. The requirement is straightforward: he must tell the electorate what he is for, where he is going, and above all he must level with us.
Now that Nick has spoken up, he must step up.