Nick Clegg is “self obsessed, dishonest and revolting”. So says Education Secretary Michael Gove’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings, and I doubt there are many here present who would disagree with that assessment – except perhaps to say that it was a mite over-generous.
Cummings is rightly exercised by deputy prime minister Clegg’s weaselly machinations over Coalition education policy. Educational reform is undoubtedly one of the major achievements (some might argue the only notable achievement) of the Cameron administration. But the Lib Dems have sought consistently to undermine it, taking their cue from their leader Clegg who – after his U-turn on tuition fees – is desperately trying to establish some clear yellow water between his own party and that of his Conservative allies-of-convenience. Hammering Gove’s rigorously traditional, vaguely market-driven improvements to Britain’s creaking education system is an easy way of doing so.
Gove is said to be particularly incensed at having been steamrollered by Cameron and Osborne into endorsing a pledge made by Clegg that, from September, all five- and seven-year-olds should have free school meals – funded, of course, by the taxpayer.
You can imagine it going down well with Lib Dem voters: children are the future; the government simply can’t spend enough money on worthy projects; hot food, provided by jolly dinner ladies, is healthy; etc.
But this kind of eye-catching initiative, though superficially attractive, is hardly consistent with the Coalition’s policy of trying to rein in unnecessary spending. There was no allocation in the Department of Education’s budget for Clegg’s bread-and-circuses measure. So inevitably, cuts had to be made elsewhere.
Here, according to Cummings speaking to the Mail On Sunday, is what happened:
“Clegg launched the free school meals policy on the back of a fag packet, then lied about it. Clegg let Cameron announce the marriage tax allowance. In return Clegg got school meals. That’s how the Coalition works. We spent ten weeks telling Clegg and co the whole idea was insane, to no avail. Then he said he was announcing the budget for the scheme in 24 hours, because he had media interviews booked. Michael’s officials told him his figures were ‘untrue.’ Clegg ignored it. Millions of taxpayers’ money went down the drain. In January, the DfE had to do a secret deal with the Treasury to fiddle the numbers to cover up Clegg’s lies.”
So what conclusions are we to draw from all this?
The message, I suspect, that Lynton Crosby and the Conservative propaganda machine would like you to believe is this: “Look, we in the Conservatives always loathed having to get into bed with those horrid Lib Dems; they’ve shafted us at every turn and what we want you do know is that as soon as we’re out of Coalition with the buggers we’re going to do all those proper Conservative things you’d like us to do; just you see…”
But much as I admire one or two figures in the Conservative party – and none more than Gove – I can’t bring myself remotely to sympathise with the Conservatives’ general predicament, let alone buy into their analysis of how we can all get out of this dog’s breakfast of a Coalition government.
The fact is that this Coalition problem was entirely of their own making. And if anyone’s to blame for Nick Clegg it’s David Cameron. For Cameron to complain that Clegg has gone AWOL is the equivalent of Dr Frankenstein trying to dissociate himself from the activities of the monster rampaging through the village. If it hadn’t been for Cameron, Clegg would still be a nobody, languishing on the back benches.
It was Cameron who put Clegg on the map by agreeing to debate with him on TV; Cameron whose damp-rag, “share the proceeds of growth”, vote-blue-go-green Conservatism failed to galvanise the natural Tory voting base; Cameron whose hunger for power at all costs resulted in the sordid Coalition with his party’s ideological enemies; Cameron whose rose-garden love-in with Clegg set the tone for Coalition policy (vote Blue, get Yellow, basically).
Now if you believe the Tory propaganda, the solution to all this is to resist the temptation to vote UKIP at the next general election, hold your nose, and vote for the Conservatives. Whatever you may think of them, the logic goes, they’re your only hope a) of getting a referendum on the EU and b) keeping out of Number 10 the most aggressively left-wing Labour party leader in a generation.
My take-home message, however, is rather different. If you want another Coalition – with Nick Clegg or similar as deputy prime minister – vote Conservative. This, some polls are suggesting, is already the most likely outcome of the next general election. (The recovering economy is predicted to win the Conservatives more seats than any other party, but not a working majority). And if you’re happy with the direction of this Coalition – HS2; massive offshore wind farms; unchecked immigration; money-printing; no plausible exit-plan from Europe; etc – then that’s definitely where you should put your X.
Personally my beef is not with the Conservative party but with the way that the Cameron project has eviscerated and emasculated it. And if this is a view you share, then the only possible response is to vote for the one party capable of bringing the Conservatives to their senses – and that’s UKIP.