"The Liberal Democrats are currently enjoying a surge of support which they will ride to an impressive victory in 2015", so says nobody. Although commentary of the party's plight in some corners of the press is unnecessarily exaggerated, not even Nick Clegg can deny they're on a bumpy path towards a pretty nasty result at the next election. It's now down to the deputy prime minister to create fork in the road - this week, he got his shovel out.
"This is the time when we can start spreading our wings", Clegg told The Guardian on Wednesday. He's flying straight towards Britain's most wealthy, having confirmed that this year's Lib Dem Party Conference will focus on fiscal equality. "People of very considerable personal wealth have got to make a bit of an extra contribution", he declared. This broad initial statement is hardly a controversial call from Clegg. He might be almost guaranteed to face stiff opposition when a specific policy is tabled, but he's up for the fight.
Cast your mind back to April 2010 when the Lib Dem election campaign ran three main pledges - major reforms to Westminster, the abolition of student fees, and a fairer tax system. Nowadays, the junior coalition partners are too often denied credit for their smaller achievements in government, but it's not unreasonable to point out that two of their three fundamental aims for this country have fallen. The proposed Alternative Voting system and House of Lords restructure have been ruled out by the sharpest of pencils by grassroot Conservatives, and it's probably best we don't get on to student fees. If David Cameron called a snap election tomorrow, which major post-election accomplishment could the Lib Dems champion?
So, it's time to talk about tax, apparently. Over the next month, Clegg will try hard to put it right at the top of the political agenda, with conference speeches and editorials outlining plans to pick up more money for the government. Talking's not the difficult bit, though - acting is where the slip-ups occur. For decades, party leaders have spoken so much and done so little about taxation. This year alone, tax avoidance has been prominent on front pages and yet the government seems to be doing little to tackle it.
Will the plans ever go ahead? MPs on both sides of the Commons will argue that the negative social impact of a steep wealth tax will be overwhelming. If Clegg calls for the treasury to move forward with his ideas, he must do so without slurring the rich. Whenever tax is put at the forefront of discussion, the fear of friction between the rungs of the class ladder lingers. This snag would be patchable if the Chancellor was on board. "We have to be careful as a country that we don't drive away the wealth creators that are going to lead our economic recovery", he said this week - hardly a triumphant endorsement.
Yet, there is another question- does Nick Clegg even expect the plans to go ahead? The specific proposals will be outlined in Brighton next month, but it is incredibly unlikely that the controversial political elephant of taxation will suddenly spew a successful policy out of its trunk through a coalition. George Osborne wasn't even informed of the plans before Clegg'sGuardian interview went to press. Surely the Deputy Prime Minister would consult the Chancellor of the Exchequer before putting forward a serious fiscal strategy?
He would. The fact is- providing the leading Lib Dems play their cards right- it doesn't matter if this plan flops or flies. As helpful as enshrining a key party position into government policy would be when turning around his woes, the deputy prime minister has another ambition on his mind - independence. Proposing a distinctly un-Conservative idea and waiting for the inevitable fallout is a smart move. Tory backbenchers have given Clegg enough headaches by now - it's probably about time he used them to his advantage.
One rumour about the ever-looming reshuffle predicts that David Laws will return to lead a department made up entirely of Liberal Democrat ministers. This could be a good idea for the party, as it would separate the two coalition partners and allow the Lib Dems to be seen working as an individual force. The high chances of deterioration in inter-party cooperation might mean this will never see the light of day, though.
The same potential benefits lie behind the deputy prime minister's grand proposals this week. If he and his party colleagues were seen as the proactive half of the coalition partnership with the initiatives and ideas to sort out the economy, the prospective electoral prizes would put them firmly back in the right direction. If Tory MPs knock this one - like so many others - out of the park, it might even give the Lib Dems a boost. 2015 may be a while off, but the Liberal Democrat election campaign is slowly underway - with Nick Clegg at the helm.
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