Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg finds himself as deputy prime minister of the UK coalition government for one reason: his performance in the first televised debate between the party leaders.
Despite failing to win any more votes for his party in the election than they managed in the last one under Charles Kennedy he impressed many pundits, and apparently his new Tory partners in government, with his confident air and affinity with the voters.
But the aforementioned affinity with the voters might be about to disappear.
With chancellor George Osborne set to deliver an ’emergency’ budget jam-packed with cost cuts, Clegg has already stepped boldly where no sensible politician would dream of going.
He was presumably party to treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander’s list of cuts hastily outlined to the House of Commons last week (Alexander is a Lib Dem). These included the removal of a government loan of £80m to Sheffield Forgemasters to make nuclear power station machinery.
Clegg is a Sheffield MP.
He also made a widely-promoted speech calling public sector pensions (many Lib Dem supporters work in the public sector) unaffordable and unfair.
As the BBC’s brainy economics editor Stephanie Flanders points out in her blog some of the assumptions in this speech and the conclusions he drew from them were plain wrong.
How many of his own MPs support his actions to date and his enthusiastic support for cuts of all descriptions?
It’s hard to believe that his Lib Dem deputy Vince Cable, business secretary in the new government, supports the Sheffield Forgemasters decision.
After all Vince has spent the last two years moaning about the state-supported banks’ failure to lend to UK manufacturers.
And the likes of veteran Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes, who’s likely to take over from Cable as deputy Lib Dem leader, will hardly support a pogrom against public employees.
The Lib Dems will have some bitter medicine to swallow when Osborne makes his budget speech and, as is always the way with these things, will blame Clegg.
The Lib Dems have other problems besides. Alexander’s predecessor as chief secretary David Laws has already felt it necessary to resign because he rented a room from his male lover and charged more for it on expenses than he should.
Energy secretary Chris Huhne, who lost narrowly to Clegg in the Libs’ leadership election, has said tonight that he’s leaving his wife for a female member of his campaign team.
These events have nothing to do with Clegg’s opinions about cuts or public sector pensions but they contribute to an air of flakiness about the Lib Dems. And the flakier they get the less likely they are to be stalwart coalition partners as Osborne’s cuts go deeper.
Sooner or later the rump of Lib Dem MPs (those not in the government) will start to foresee a complete wipe-out at the next election as a Miliband-led Labour Party depicts them as Tory stooges.
And some of them will start to ask, is Clegg really a Liberal Democrat or just another well-heeled Tory boy at heart?
When politics turn nasty, which they’re about to, PR skills can only take you so far.