Nick Clegg doesn’t look much like a prizefighter at the moment. Across southern England, he lost hundreds of councillors to the Conservatives. Splat! In the great Northern cities, years of progress was wiped out. Kapow! In Scotland, two thirds of his troops lost their seats at Holyrood. Whack! And in the biggest blow of election night, his party’s decades-long dream of scrapping the first-past-the-post system was defeated in a landslide.
But wait! Who’s that moving on the canvas? Wiping the blood from his brow, and causing the crowd to hush, it’s Nick Clegg. Slowly, gingerly, bones creaking, agonies written across his face, the Deputy Prime Minister lifts his gloves to his many opponents and launches into the recovery phase of his leadership. In his own words, welcome to the world of “muscular liberalism”.
Mr Clegg defined this idea in the context of what he called “Spartan” behaviour by the Conservatives (try to avoid the mental images of Ken “Menelaus” Clarke and Eric “Lysander” Pickles in red tunics, brandishing swords). Yes, Clegg continued, Lib Dem MPs would still support the Government, and its policy, but they would no longer stand quite so close to the Conservatives.
The NHS provides the first theatre for this distancing strategy. Clegg wants a significant dilution of Andrew Lansley’s reforms. Cameron is set to agree, in what we should call a managed concession. Think of a child asking his father for a train set. The son will get what he thinks he wants, but after he’s safely tucked up in bed, the father will be playing station controller. In this context, that controller is George Osborne: while he has formed an alliance with the Lib Dem leader to moderate the Lansley blueprint, he’s on Cameron’s side in insisting that some kind of reform continues.
Cameron, as Patrick Hennessy makes clear in this paper today, knows that unless the NHS makes more efficient use of its budget, it will be in crisis by the next election – which could be fatal for his chances of getting back into No 10. The NHS has replaced the Church of England as Britain’s national religion. In Opposition, the Tories did all they could to prove that they were believers, promising extra money for health care while cutting almost every other budget. They knew that to complete this reassurance exercise, they had to get into power. After all, it’s one thing to say you won’t eat babies: it’s another to not actually eat them once you’re in charge of the nursery.