Tuesday, 18 December 2007

In the Nick

A perfectly appropriate end to the Lib Dem leadership contest, with Nick Clegg beating Chris Huhne by a mere 511 votes.

Ever since the two virtual unknowns were introduced to the public following the defenestration of Ming Campbell, they have been all but indistinguishable. Same background, same school, same hairstyle. They have, of course, managed comprehensively to destroy one another's reputations: the effort to distinguish themselves only serving to make both seem repulsive and/or ridiculous. During the campaign, Huhne dubbed his rival "calamity Clegg". Today, looking crestfallen (as well he might) at missing out, he demanded to play a leading role in the new front bench team.

The result is effectively a dead heat. Though Clegg's narrow win has already been interpreted as bad for the Conservatives. The supposedly Cameron-like Clegg will, it is imagined, take attention and votes away from the Tory leader.

Quite the reverse, I would predict. Failing to present an identifiably different face to the electorate, Clegg is unlikely to give many would-be Tory voters a strong reason for not backing the main opposition. Is there any longer a difference between them? Only one I can think of. The Conservatives have some prospect of forming the next government. The Lib Dems do not.

They won't admit it, or even recognise it themselves, but the best hope for the Lib Dems lies in some sort of alliance with the Conservatives. An alliance in which they tacitly accept the loss of some Tory-Lib Dem marginals in return for the prospect of taking more seats off Labour. The latter would probably have been easier under Chris Huhne, who would appear to have more natural affinity with Labour-style language; Nick Clegg's Cameronesque touches are less likely to tempt disillusioned Labour voters. Nevertheless, the attempt must be made. A Tory-Lib Dem war can only benefit the incumbent government.

Clegg and Cameron talk the same language. They share the same concern for civil liberties and decentralisation. They share, too, a common interest in bringing down an incompetent, bloated, sleazy and authoritarian government. David Cameron has offered the new Lib Dem leader such an alliance. Undoubtedly, political calculation, even cheekiness, lay behind the offer. But Clegg shouldn't spurn it. In most things, they are on the same side. The days of the "anti-Tory" coalition are over.

Nick Clegg hasn't made that good a start, it has to be said. Interviewed by Eddie Mair on PM, he was asked for his view of the BBC's ridiculous decision (now abandoned in the face of almost universal derision) to censor Shane Macgowan's classic piece of genius, Fairytale of New York. He claimed not to have heard it. Can this be true? There are only two possible conclusions: either he's prepared to dissemble and wriggle rather than give a straightforward answer to a not particularly controversial question, or he really hasn't heard the song, which came out twenty years ago when he was a student and is regularly voted the greatest Christmas single of all time.

It's hard to know which of these alternatives is the more depressing.