The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, went viral last week as various doctored versions of his apology for tuition fees flew around the internet. I'm not sure when the fashion for politicians saying sorry began – probably with Tony Blair's 1997 apology for the 19th-century Irish potato famine. Having discovered that they can actually say the word, politicians have been scattering apologies far and wide ever since – for Hillsborough, the poll tax, for being nasty to policemen. The question is: where do you stop?
Arguably Nick Clegg should be apologising for a lot more than the reintroduction of university tuition fees in England. There are the one million young people who are unemployed; there is the austerity programme, which has actually increased spending while putting a lot of people out of work. Clegg owes an apology to supporters of electoral reform, or fair voting, after his cack-handed attempt to bounce Britain into a system, the Alternative Vote, which is neither fair nor proportional. Those who want to see Britain's constitution brought into the 20th century (forget the 21st) by abolishing the unelected House of Lords have grounds for apology, too, at Clegg's failure to deliver.
The poor old Scottish Liberal Democrats deserve a lot more than a mealy-mouthed apology for tuition fees which pole-axed them in the 2011 Holyrood elections. Liberal Democrat participation in the Tory-led Coalition in the UK has done immense damage to the party in Scotland. Mind you, the Scottish Liberal Democrats owe an apology to themselves for refusing in 2007 to discuss a coalition with the SNP that could have kept them in power at Holyrood. And for seeking to exclude their own policy, federalism, from the referendum. Sometimes, sorry just isn't good enough.
But why this particular apology, and why now? Well, clearly Nick Clegg was apologising first and foremost to his own party, the shattered remnants of which gather in Brighton for their annual conference this weekend. In UK voting they are barely getting above 10% in the polls, in Scotland a lot less. The Coalition strategy was supposed to show just how good at governing the Liberal Democrats were, but it isn't working. More importantly the economy isn't working either.
Clegg signed up to the deficit-reduction programme in 2010, but borrowing is still going up as confirmed by the announcement last week of the worst August deficit numbers ever. This is despite the printing of hundreds of billions of pounds, zero interest rates and a devalued pound. There have been signs of life in some corners of the economy, and unemployment is not as bad as it should be in the depths of the longest recession since the 1930s. But that doesn't mean people feel confident about the future.
What this tells me, loud and clear, is that the Conservatives are going to lose the next general election. It may be foolhardy to predict an election result two-and-a-half years from polling day, but it is very hard to see how David Cameron can win again. Remember, he didn't win an outright majority last time, when he was "the future" as he used to tell Tony Blair at the dispatch box. The future isn't what it was. The omni-shambles following last year's budget has done a lot to damage the Tory claims to economic competence. Foreign policy successes, like supporting the Libyan rebels, have not stuck while Afghanistan is a nightmare.
The UK Independence Party are snapping at Tory heels in a number of constituencies. The reform of the National Health Service in England looks like an expensive mistake, and welfare reform is an accident waiting to happen.
In the run-up to the next election, very large numbers of people are going to be hurting, on and off benefits, and while Britain has become a lot less sympathetic to welfare claimants in recent years, the wheelchair demos and evictions may still win sympathy from voters who are themselves feeling financially crippled by the recession.
Cutting welfare during a recession is anyway very difficult, first of all because there is very little work around for people to be returned to; and second because the bill keeps going up as more and more people find themselves dependent on state handouts. The Institute for Public Policy Research last week warned that another £14 billion was going to be required to balance the welfare books because of the lingering recession. Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, tried to boost the anti-independence cause by saying that Scotland couldn't afford the cost of welfare. But the truth is, neither can the UK.
A faltering economy, hard-luck stories, botched reforms, world recession, ongoing divisions over Europe – no, I can't see how the Tories can pull themselves back. Labour is consistently around 10 points ahead in the UK polls, even though they have the "wrong" Miliband brother as leader. The Tories are confident that Ed Miliband is a loser, but that is far from proven. He is pretty good at Prime Minister's Questions, and anyway, as we all know, oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them.
By 2015 Miliband will be better known and, whisper it, he is in charge of a party more united now than at any time I can remember. The Blairite tensions over modernisation and the Iraq war are history, and the big issues that used to divide the party, such as unilateral nuclear disarmament, public-service reform and devolution, are largely resolved. It may be the peace of the graveyard, as some unkind souls portray the modern Labour Party, but it is peace. Except of course for viewers in Scotland who have been witnessing another round of infighting – but that's another story.
So, the most likely outcome in 2015 is another hung parliament in Westminster, though with Labour the largest party. Which brings us back to Clegg's apology. The reason this is happening now is, I believe, to prepare the voting public for the end of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. Nick Clegg would never admit it, but the LibDems are starting to draw a line under a disastrous period when a naturally left-of-centre party tried to govern in coalition with a distinctly right-of-centre party, with unhappy results. It is a sign that the Liberal Democrats are going to be on the side of the angels in future and say farewell to the devil. It wasn't them, really, who tried to govern with the Tories; OK it was, but they were suffering from temporary insanity. It'll be different in future.
Or to put it another way – forget all the broken promises we've made in the past. We're about to make a whole lot of different promises to break in future.
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