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Nick Clegg has led a defiantly upbeat election campaign, looking to catch the headlines with a series of unusual photo opportunities, from visiting a hedgehog sanctuary to posing with giant cod. He has even gone tenpin bowling in Colchester — the only time, his aides joke, the centrist party has swerved either to the right or the left.
But as he talks to the Financial Times on a train back to his Sheffield Hallam constituency, he apologises for the lack of bounce in his step. “I’m sorry if I look a little tired — I was on [the Channel 4 chat show] The Last Leg last night, and stayed up for a few drinks with the guys afterwards.”
Mr Clegg’s first appearance on the late night comedy programme — during which he was regularly interrupted by a “bull**** buzzer” that sounded whenever he lapsed into Westminster babble — set the tone for a quirky few weeks on the election trail.
The mood has been in stark contrast with the political fate he and his party face, with polls suggesting the Liberal Democrats will lose half their seats, perhaps including Mr Clegg’s own.
“We’re going to do better than the polls suggest, considerably better,” Mr Clegg says. “We have much more focused intel about what is going on in our seats than the pollsters do.”
His upbeat, quirky message also thrown into relief the more disciplined, tightly controlled campaigns led by his political rivals in the Labour and Conservative parties.
He has scathing words for those campaigns — especially that of his coalition partner Mr Cameron, who pledged on Friday to create an “English income tax” on which Scottish MPs are not allowed to have a deciding vote.
“Today was the day that David Cameron gave up even pretending that he was going to be prime minister of the United Kingdom,” Mr Clegg told the FT. “The Conservative party is as of now an English party ... That is a remarkable insight into the level of panic that is now engulfing the Conservative party as they chase those Ukip votes in the final stages of this election campaign.”
The Lib Dem leader is also highly critical of Mr Cameron’s decision to put the promise of unfunded spending promises and tax cuts at the heart of his campaign. Mr Clegg says: “They are trying to camouflage a hard-right cuts agenda with unfunded cash bungs. It is literally the worst of both worlds, socially regressive and economically illiterate all in one.”
But behind the criticism lies a simple reality: it is the Conservatives with whom Mr Clegg is now more likely to form another coalition government, having ruled out any kind of deal that includes the Scottish National party.
Gradually, he and his colleagues are removing the barriers to a second Tory-Lib Dem deal. Despite the Lib Dems’ traditionally pro-Europe stance, Mr Clegg once more declined to veto the referendum on EU membership promised by Mr Cameron. His allies have told the FT they are drawing up lists of what they might demand in return, including setting the terms of the referendum and securing further constitutional change.
The Lib Dem leader also suggests there might be some room for manoeuvre on the party’s opposition to further airport expansion in the south east, which their manifesto rules out. “If the Davies commission [which is due to report in the summer] comes up with new evidence, we will need to look at that,” he says.
His colleague Danny Alexander recently told the FT he would be willing to ask the party one more time to drop its opposition to new runways, something members refused to do when asked last autumn.
And whatever their disputes with the Tories, Mr Clegg reserves his strongest condemnation for the way Labour has behaved in opposition. “Labour have gorged themselves for so long now on this slightly over-the-top betrayal narrative, that somehow their right to govern the country has been snatched from their grip by the dastardly Liberal Democrats,” he says.
Mr Clegg will need to summon all his energy for the last 12 days of the campaign, not least to protect his own seat of Sheffield Hallam, which one recent poll suggests will fall narrowly to his Labour challenger Oliver Coppard.
Barring any lingering effects of the late night before, the 48-year-old Lib Dem leader insists he has more drive than ever. Asked whether, like Mr Cameron, he will leave after the 2020 election, Mr Clegg says: “I will take one parliament at a time. I have certainly got the energy and the commitment and the enthusiasm for doing a full parliamentary term.”