At the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Gateshead, Clegg found himself at the centre of a public spat with the party’s grassroots over the proposed health reforms.
The conference refused to give full backing to the coalition’s Health and Social Care Bill, denting Clegg’s authority as leader.
Delegates defied Clegg by refusing to order Lib Dem peers to vote for the changes in Parliament. Party members also criticised Clegg for using Baroness Shirley Williams as a 'human shield' by drafting a motion to endorse changes to the health bill, and urge a third reading in her name.
Nick Williams, head of public affairs at Fleishman-Hillard London, said the conference had been ‘a shambles’ for Clegg and that he had been made to look ‘ridiculous’.
Williams added: ‘Clegg must have known that he was facing defeat from his members. The very fact that he tried to use Shirley Williams to save his humiliation and still faced defeat demonstrates how out of touch he is with rank and file Lib Dem members.’
However, Ketchum Pleon MD of public affairs and corporate comms Jo-ann Robertson argued that while Clegg is in touch with the Lib Dem grassroots, he does not agree with them.
She said: ‘Clegg is very much in touch with the grassroots, he is just not in agreement with them. Even if he was, he doesn't have enough leverage with Cameron and Osborne to get the bill to where the grassroots think it should be – ie in the bin!’
She added: ‘The Liberal Democrats have for too long seen themselves as beacons for "doing the right thing". That was easy in opposition. Now two years into the coalition with the "nasty party" the pain is starting to hit.
'The Health and Social Care Bill is badly written and will seriously damage the NHS for decades to come. Clegg knows this.'
George Hutchinson, head of public affairs at Burson-Marsteller, also believed the Lib Dem in-fighting was a sign of how the next election might be run.
He said: ‘I suspect this is a foretaste of things to come. Clegg as Deputy PM in an austerity government is going to have to support other measures his party activists won't like. It shows the difficulty in messaging at election time – will there be lots of Lib Dem candidates running on an "I don't agree with Nick" message? In previous elections voters have punished both Labour and the Conservatives for being divided – is this now the fate for Clegg's party?’
Lexis corporate head James Thellusson warned that Clegg could end up 'marooned' by the NHS.
He said: ‘Clegg has a permanently tricky triangulation to pull off between his grass roots, his coalition and voters. The NHS bill epitomised this problem. The grassroots don’t really want it and even in its amended form, it will be hard to make political capital out of it. He's open to attacks from Labour that he has supported the dismantling of the NHS and the Tories aren’t going to support his claims that the Bill is better thanks to his amendments. He can't afford to get marooned between the needs of his party and the coalition.’