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Nick Clegg may be bruised, but he is not defeated

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg takes part in a Q&A at his party's conference in Brighton Photo: Press Association

Sometimes, it must be rather depressing to be Nick Clegg.

A poll out this morning would have made for particularly painful reading.

Although 42% of people said they found the Deputy Prime Minister likeable, 58% said he was untrustworthy, 66% indecisive and a staggering 75% weak. Ouch.

There is a school of thought that suggests that Nick Clegg is therefore finished and will be replaced before the next election. It has a certain logic, but I don't entirely buy it.

There is no doubt that on a strategic and tactical level, Nick has been an absolutely lousy general, inconsistent and naive in equal measure.

The decision to accept the rise in tuition fees was a grade one political error of truly epic proportions.

He may have apologised for making the pledge in the first place, but it was breaking it that was the catastrophe.

Do you think the Tories would have agreed to abandon a promise this totemic? No chance.

They would simply have insisted that the money was found somewhere else. It was the day the street-wise sixth formers ate the new boys and girls for breakfast.

Panicked by the damage done to his reputation, Nick then rushed into the AV referendum.

It was always clear to most people outside his party that in the shadow of the cuts and tax rises that were about to be imposed, the answer to any question he chose to put to the British people at this point was almost certain to be 'no, get st****d.'

He could have used the traction he had with the Tories in these early days to force through an ambitious version of Lords reform without consulting the people in exchange for boundary changes, a constitutional reform that might have provided a substantial legacy.

But by the time he did get around to this, the Tory backbenches were disillusioned and in revolt against the restrictions of coalition. So he blew that one, too.

But there is a more fundamental level on which his strategic direction has been poor.

In the early days of the coalition he told the likes of me that he had studied the fate of smaller parties in government across Europe and concluded that the key to success was to keep your head down, be supportive and do the hard work.

Come the next election, he said, we will simply need to be able to point convincingly to half a dozen areas in which we made government better.

But, when things started going wrong, he decided that a noisy policy of 'differentiation' was instead the answer.

So the public doesn't really know what to make of the Lib Dems in government. Are they the steady junior partners who quietly water down the more extreme proposals or the voluble, de-stabilising opposition within?

A classic example of this was the night David Cameron wielded his veto in Brussels.

David Cameron used his veto in Brussels this year. Nick Clegg's response was confused. Credit: Reuters

The following day (a Friday), Nick Clegg called me and, I'm sure, Nick Robinson and others to say that he and the PM had discussed the issue in detail before the summit and he fully supported his stance.

But by Sunday (after apparently facing the wrath of his party), he was on the radio saying that he totally opposed the use of the veto.

His general argument seemed to be that if he'd known the PM was actually going to use the veto, he would never have supported this stance.

Now I'm sorry, but you just can't get away with this. At least, not if you want to retain any credibility at Westminster.

So why do I say that I don't think Nick Clegg is finished?

Well, the first point is an obvious one; that daily coverage of politics amounts to a rolling referendum but an election is a choice.

In his prime, Gordon Brown understood this better than anyone, which is why he was actually quite a good election strategist.

It is possible that the mood of the nation will be to turn left and opt for Ed Miliband as Prime Minister in 2015, but there is little sign of that yet (despite the headline polls).A Mori poll in the Evening Standard last week actually gave David Cameron a clear advantage on almost every important measure:

  • Eloquent: David Cameron: 59%, Ed Miliband: 15%
  • Prime Ministerial: DC: 57, EM: 17
  • Understands people like him: DC: 26, EM: 36
  • Likeable: DC: 38, EM: 29
  • Tough enough for the job of PM: DC: 54, EM: 18
  • Represents Britain: DC: 46, EM: 26
  • Smart enough for the job of Prime Minister: DC: 54, EM: 22
  • He has the right values: DC: 37, EM: 35
  • Would be fun to meet in person: DC: 34, EM: 21

In the middle of a parliament and as the leader of a government doing very unpopular things, these are actually rather surprising figures.

If I was Labour, I'd be more than a little concerned.

There is a long way to go and plenty can happen in that time, but let's just say that, come 2015, our national inclination is, without much enthusiasm and with plenty of reservations, to go on with David Cameron as Prime Minister.

Alongside him, the Lib Dems are going to have one simple proposition: you can either have a cabinet full of Andrew Mitchells or you can have Nick, Vince and David Laws watching over Cameron and the Tories and keeping their rougher instincts in check.

For this argument to be compelling, they merely have to give us five areas in which they can convincingly claim they were a restraining influence. They will no doubt start with the NHS.

You can see the logic to it. It is essentially the strategy Nick first outlined to me in office.

I am not sure the Tories have done much to make us any more enthusiastic about the prospect of them in power alone.

To many, they are still the nasty party.

This is why episodes such as Andrew Mitchell's rant at Downing Street's policemen (a pretty affable bunch, in my experience) are so disastrous.

Andrew Mitchell's outburst did not help the Tory reputation for being 'nasty' Credit: ITV News

And as for Nick Clegg himself, well I am probably alone here at Westminster in thinking that his apology was a good idea.

His message now is that he has made mistakes, he has learned from them and he is considerably more battle-hardened and able to handle the rougher aspects of coalition as a result.

But even if you disagree, let's be blunt: he is easily his party's most effective communicator.

I am not convinced that the public opprobrium is set in stone. We are all rather more fickle than that.

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey Credit: Press Association

Swapping him for Vince or Ed Davey (really?) would do the Lib Dems about as much good as ditching Tony for Gordon did for Labour.

So I suspect he may be here to stay. He might even be able to convince his bloodied and bruised troops to follow him into battle once again.

But he needs to get his strategic act together. Nobody likes a naive and inconsistent general.

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