Over the years I have written often on this site about leadership. With, arguably, little regard for realism I have from time to time urged politicians to be more authentic and honest. Now perhaps for one leader the clever thing is also the right thing.
Most public speakers secretly hope to follow someone who has underperformed. As David Cameron came after Ed Miliband he had a great start and he didn’t waste it. It was, as most commentators have said, a very strong speech, well delivered, with some good lines and a nice a balance of elements; ordinary bloke and statesman, self-deprecation and aggression, political ideology and seeming moderation.
However, there was - as people are also starting to point out - one rather big problem; it was dishonest. The idea that the next Government can take around £45 billion out of public spending at a time when various factors, most obviously population ageing, are driving up demand and when many agencies can hardly cope with the cuts they are now being asked to make is for the birds (and the Conservatives must know it). Ironically, Miliband got hammered for not mentioned the deficit yet Labour’s less ambitious expenditure reduction plans are probably more realistic (although still way, way beyond any actual cuts that Labour has outlined).
Miliband’s speech was a rallying call seemingly directed exclusively at existing Labour supporters, Cameron appealed to the nation at large but by avoiding reality.
The leaders of both parties are likely to be internally justifying their unconvincing plans on similar grounds: First, the hope that growth will eventually start delivering a fiscal dividend (although it hasn’t done so far); second, as long as the deficit is coming down, people and the markets won’t mind if it falls most slowly than forecast (just like the last five years); third, saying anything is justified if it helps win the election. Maybe the tactics will work, but it is hardly inspiring leadership.
Whatever his other issues and opinions, when it comes to courage Nick Clegg has a story to tell. He made the judgement four years ago that a Coalition was in the country’s interests and that being seen as a credible party of government was in the LibDems' interests. Even if he didn’t predict how bad it would get, he must have known this was a decision that would win him a lot more foes than friends.
But leadership is about judgements well as bravery and if the consequence of Clegg’s actions is that he loses most of his MPs and finishes behind UKIP (both of which seem odds on) it will be the failure of the former not the strength of the latter that is his political epitaph.
All of which may be why candour is now Clegg’s only choice. Learning perhaps from his disastrous 2010 pledge on student fees, in his speech next week he could be the one leader who challenges his audience and tells the country the truth (or at least more of it). That would mean explaining to the LibDems, a Party no more inclined than others to face facts, that the future is about yet more hard choices but that the only hope of winning back support from the public is to trust them with the truth not try to blind them with false promises or easy enemies. He could say that he is closer to Ed Balls' view when it comes to the maximum viable path for cuts but that as a liberal he rejects Labour’s all-consuming faith in the state. He could respond to the English question, not by ducking it as Miliband largely did or pretending there is an easy and popular answer as Cameron did, but committing to a profound shift of power from Whitehall to city regions (the RSA 's City Growth Commission will soon show how).
After the last two weeks there is certainly a space for a different kind of speech and a different kind of leadership. It is a big ask of Clegg but, really, what has he got to lose?