Nick Clegg and the strange death of Liberal Democrat campaign visits

Nick Clegg <em>Picture: World Economic Forum / Moritz Hager</em>
Nick Clegg Picture: World Economic Forum / Moritz Hager
There is Nick Clegg, sitting in the deputy prime minister’s office at Westminster. He calls through to an aide: “Has it arrived yet?”

“No,” replies the assistant. “It must have got lost in the post.”

“Yes. It must,” murmurs the deputy prime minister to himself. “There’s a lot of that happening at the moment.”

Mr Clegg has got his invitation to the royal wedding, but what he doesn’t seem to have got yet is the one he really wants – an invitation to take part in the Scottish election campaign.

Here we are, a full three-and-a-half weeks into the campaign and only one of the main UK party leaders has been north of the border to campaign.

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Ed Miliband arrived in Scotland today to look at helicopters in Aberdeen and chat to call centre workers in Dundee, but David Cameron has been too busy bombing Tripoli and keeping immigrants out of the south-east of England to come north and Mr Clegg – well, it really looks as if he is still waiting to be asked.

A Lib Dem spokeswoman said today that Mr Clegg had not been on a campaigning visit to Scotland yet. “He will be coming,” she said, but added: “There is no date yet.”

Tavish Scott, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, was asked earlier in the campaign about Mr Clegg’s absence and insisted he would be coming to Scotland – at some stage.

But other comments made by Mr Scott seemed to suggest that he would rather sleep on a bed of nails than have his UK leader join him on the campaign trail.

How can you possible invite your leader to campaign with you when you admit publicly that the coalition he has embarked on is your biggest “difficulty” on the doorstep?

How can you want your national leader anywhere close to your campaign when you are doing all you can to distance yourself from him and everything he does?

“Being connected to the Conservatives is not terribly easy for the party,” Mr Scott said yesterday, in what was the biggest understatement of the campaign so far.

And, if this is what he is saying publicly, just imagine what he is saying in private.

Mr Scott knows the Liberal Democrat vote is being hammered. Traditional Lib Dem voters have decided to punish the party for its coalition with the Conservatives and for the compromises it made in return for power.

Despite the fact that Mr Scott can do nothing about that – and, despite the fact that the coalition decision has little to do with the domestic political issues at the heart of the Holyrood campaign, the Scottish Lib Dem leader is getting it in the neck – and he knows it.

Mr Scott has been doing the round of television, radio and online interviews this week – and, at some points, he has looked so weary that some observers believe he has almost given up.

Anyone who saw the way he almost gave in to the mauling dished out by Gordon Brewer on Newsnight Scotland this week will not forget it. It was as if Mr Scott agreed with the prognosis that his party was stuffed because of the Westminster situation and there was nothing he could do about it. He just sat there and took it without fighting back.

There was one bright spot, though, amid the gloom this week. On Tuesday morning, Mr Scott went to a sheep farm in the Borders and delivered a lamb. He did it personally. Dressed in a green John Deere boilersuit, Mr Scott did a passable impression of James Herriot, stuck his arm in and came out with a lamb.

As one of those present remarked: “That was the most useful thing I have ever seen a politician do.”

Mr Scott, a sheep farmer by trade, has rarely looked happier. Indeed, if things deteriorate any more on the campaign trail, maybe he should think about returning to his farming roots full-time – it can’t be any worse than having to take such a relentless pounding as he has been doing every day.

Lambs notwithstanding, the big set-piece event of the week was the launch of the SNP manifesto, at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.

It was an expensive production, in more ways than one. The event was bold, slick and brassy with a huge screen, loud music and Alex Salmond on stage on his own under a single monster word: Re-elect.

The message was clear: this was about re-electing Mr Salmond as first minister – whatever platitudes he made about the great “team” he had behind him.

As for the manifesto itself, it was also big and bold. The glossy document – in an odd A3 size – was packed full of carefully crafted pictures and graphics, including wedding pictures, baby pictures and an obituary section.

But that might possibly have had something to do with the lack of real meaty content elsewhere. The most used phrases in the document were “continue to” and “build on”, because this was more of a recap of what had already been done than a strong, defiant agenda for change over the next five years.

The top ten priorities said it all. Number one was a council tax freeze. This has already been in place for four years, is in the pipeline for two more and the manifesto announced that it would be extended for another three years (even though this isn’t strictly within the gift of the Scottish government).

The second-top pledge was protecting the health budget, which has already been ring-fenced and protected, and the third was to keep the 1,000 extra police officers, which had also already been achieved during the last parliament.

So the top three pledges had already been made, were extensions of policies already adopted or were merely continuations of policies already in progress.

The other priorities followed a similar line and only the pledge to hold a referendum on independence at some time in the next five years will actually need any specific primary legislation of its own.

Anyone who doubts how far the SNP has moved should compare this year’s manifesto with the documents produced by the party in the run-up to the 2007 election. These were all about immediate action, a programme of change for the first 100 days and a whole host of new legislative proposals.

All that urgency and drive has disappeared. Indeed, it is almost as if, having learned the lessons of the last four years when the SNP found it almost impossible to achieve anything of any real substance because it was in a minority at Holyrood, the party has now decided not to push for anything of real legislative substance at all.

There were, though, some ambitious pledges in the manifesto, chief among them being the commitment to meet all of Scotland’s domestic electricity needs from renewable sources by 2020.

The Greens launch their manifesto next Tuesday and it is difficult to see how they can top that. However, don’t put it past them to be hastily rewriting their manifesto over the weekend (using even more recycled paper) and inserting a new pledge to meet 150 per cent of Scotland’s domestic energy needs from renewables by 2020 – just to show they can’t be out-greened by anyone.

Watch this space…

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