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The utter pointlessness of Nick Clegg

The latest developments in the ongoing saga of the National Institute of Medical Research:

PART 1 Like all other important decisions on science in the UK, the future of the National Institute for Medical Research now lies with the Treasury. It’s weighing up whether to allow the MRC and chums to buy the three acre site behind the British Library near St Pancras station so that they can construct the world’s biggest biomedical lab around a relocated NIMR. No one can move until the men in charge of Northern Rock give the nod. But of course, our economic overlords won’t be taking responsibility for the decision or answering any questions about it. So the unaccountability of the UK
government grows.

PART 2 The land is actually owned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which bizarrely—but totally consistently in the case of the celebrated anti-science department that still has no chief scientist—has tried to put the land on the open market. It’s the Two Cultures in action—it’s like something straight out of CP Snow’s The Corridors of Power.

PART 3 The site is in the Holborn and St Pancras constituency of Labour’s Frank Dobson. He’d prefer a local use but says the backing of Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust will make the development very difficult to stop. So rather than lead Somerstown on a hopeless charge, he’s pushing for planning gain on the previous, smaller Temperance Hospital site bought by the consortium nearby on Hampstead Road.

PART 4 The site is also within the London Borough of Camden, now controlled by the Lib Dems with the aid of the Conservatives. Its borough plan has the site zoned as a mixture of local housing and other local-friendly amenities. Both Ming Campbell and Nick Clegg have been along to tell locals that the site must be saved for local use.

PART 5 Now that he wants to be Prime Minister, we called Clegg to find out what he thought should happen to the NIMR and why it was right in this case to put local concerns ahead of the future of a large chunk of Britain’s medical research. We phoned and phoned. We emailed. We left messages. Nada. Oops, could that be the embarrassed silence of a tinker toy politician we hear, one who thought it would be nice to play to the local gallery and wasn’t interested in the bigger questions?

Medical research is of course only one of a multitude of issues any leader has to deal with. But that’s why this story is telling. It’s not a case of vision and spin. It’s a matter of making a decision. The most damaging accusation levelled at Lib Dems has always been that they’re irrelevant. But Clegg is in a different league. The man who wants the keys to Number 10 is making an art out of evasive pointlessness.