Nick Clegg: the fightback

Nick Clegg is strolling in the gardens of Robinson College, his red-brick Cambridge alma mater, savouring the last embers of the British summer. His pale face still bears traces of colour from a family holiday in northern Spain, his mood is relentlessly upbeat. “That’s my old room,” he smiles, pointing to a rooftop turret.

But this is not a comforting trip down memory lane for Britain’s deputy prime minister: Clegg is reviled in university towns across the land as the man who put up student tuition fees after signing a pre-election pledge not to do so. This is the start of a mission to confront the mistakes of the past and to attempt the most unlikely reconstruction of a political brand seen in British politics in recent years.

Clegg strides into the lecture theatre for a Q&A session and it is not long before he is confronted by Dan Purves of Demon FM, a student radio station, who has conducted a straw poll of his peers: “Basically they all hate him,” he says. “Usually with students they are indifferent to politicians, but with Clegg it’s hatred. It’s like your first love breaking your heart – you never forget that.”

But Clegg has spent the past two-and-half years soaking up criticism and abuse; Cambridge is where the fightback begins. Clegg apologises for making a pre-election promise he could not keep, but then launches into an epic, pugnacious defence of the student fees policy and the compromises you have to make as junior partner in a coalition when you have only 8 per cent of all MPs. On and on he goes, peppering his comments with an accusatory “Right?” Purves looks bemused, but Clegg has not finished: “I’d love to be prime minister but I’m not: OK?”

Clegg begins his party conference on Saturday against a backdrop of rumbling criticism from the left of his party and media speculation that he is eyeing an early exit from British politics, possibly a one-way Eurostar ticket back to his old stomping-ground in Brussels as an EU commissioner. Vince Cable, the business secretary, stands ready to lead the party back to more comfortable terrain on the left.

YouGov, the polling organisation, has tracked Clegg’s precipitous political decline and its latest data confirm the enormity of his challenge. Just after the last election, the Lib Dem leader’s net approval rating among voters was +58; now it is -61. Only 12 per cent of people think him honest.

Peter Kellner, YouGov’s president, wrote last month that the Liberal Democrats have lost four million voters since Clegg took Britain’s third party into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 – its first taste of national power since the 1930s. Unless he starts to win them back, the party could face “near wipeout at the next election”.

But a morning spent in the company of the 45-year-old leader suggests he is keen to demonstrate he has returned from his mid-parliament break ready to fight, ready to take more risks. A new exercise regime has him working out at the gym and on the rowing machine. “I have more energy and more clarity about what we need to do in the second half of the parliament than I did in the early stages of this government.”

Is he determined to stick it out? “Totally.” He adds: “I’ve clearly taken the big hit – and I’ve taken the big hit for the team. I’ve never complained.” He thinks that by the time of the 2015 election the public will come to respect a leader who has stuck to the task in hand, helped rebuild the economy and make Britain a fairer, greener place. “I will be a different leader in 2015, I’m already a different leader. I have learned a lot of things.” He says he has taught himself to be more resilient, to concentrate on the things that really matter; he has become more of a fighter. But is it possible for Clegg to reinvent himself in office before his party’s patience finally wears thin and it returns to its old regicidal ways, let alone win back the faith of the British people?

A survey this summer by the activist website Liberal Democrat Voice found 34 per cent believed Clegg “should be replaced” as party leader before the 2015 election. Lord Smith of Clifton, a Lib Dem member of the upper house, said Clegg was like a “cork bobbing on the waves”, while Lord Oakeshott, a leading critic of Clegg, said the party should “look very hard at its management and strategy”. Cleggites argue these sporadic attacks hardly represent a leadership challenge. But the public image of Clegg is effectively frozen in the autumn of 2010. Wan-faced, exhausted by a vast workload, here was a leader who promised a brighter future and turned out to be just the same as the others, perhaps worse. Effigies of the deputy prime minister were burnt in Whitehall, dog excrement forced through his door.

Half of the Lib Dem supporters disappeared almost overnight, dismayed that Clegg was working with the Tories. And on entering government, Clegg then endorsed a programme of radical cuts (including £6bn of immediate reductions he had previously deemed irresponsible), failed to spot the dangers posed by a highly controversial reform of the health service and finally hit students with a big rise in tuition fees after promising not to do so.

Nick Clegg during a Q&A at Robinson College, Cambridge

Clegg admits to being “overwhelmed, swamped” by the sheer workload of the first year, as he tried to set up a new office – the role of deputy prime minister had to be invented from scratch – and it ended with the party losing a referendum on electoral reform and hundreds of seats in local elections. “It was a crash course in resilience,” he admits, but insists the big decisions he took were right: notably the decision to form a coalition with the Tories “in the national interest” and supporting a tough fiscal plan to take Britain back from an economic cliff-edge.

In that first year, Clegg would start work at 5am and finally complete work on ministerial boxes late in the evening as he tried to keep on top of the workload, a burden compounded when David Laws, the deputy PM’s closest political friend, resigned within weeks of the election in an expenses scandal. Laws, who returned to the government this month, says: “One of the things Nick has tried to do over time is to focus more on the big priorities of the government and not get lost in the details.” He says Clegg was never remotely close to a breakdown in that first year, but he smiles: “He looked rather whiter in the face than would be desirable.”

There was also a sense that Clegg didn’t grasp quite what he was up against and that David Cameron’s “modernised” Tory party remained a ruthless political machine, not least during the referendum campaign on switching to the AV voting system. Clegg thought he had won assurances that Cameron would stay out of the campaign: instead the Tories fought a brutal contest, including targeting Clegg himself.

In July this year, after 91 Tory MPs rebelled against the coalition to wreck the 100-year-old Liberal dream to reform the House of Lords, Clegg admitted to colleagues he had no idea the Tories would be so viscerally opposed to change.

Even on the tennis court, Clegg seemed taken aback by David Cameron’s determination to win – the PM has narrowly beaten his deputy in both of their matches, aided by a tennis training machine he calls “the Clegger”. “I should have won,” Clegg smiles. But one Number 10 insider says: “Nick couldn’t believe how competitive he was. Cameron was really stretching to win: he is much more about finishing the job and winning, ticking the boxes: achieve, achieve, achieve. I get the sense Nick is less driven.”

Lib Dem colleagues (including his critics) do not recognise The Guardian’s recent description of him as “a loser” but acknowledge he needs to be tough in his dealings with Cameron and to fight hard if the prime minister tries to shift the coalition to the right, including abandoning its green zeal. Clegg admits he has had to bulk up for life in the political ring: “Clearly something I have learned – like no other Liberal Democrat leader has done – is how to both fight and win bare-knuckle fights in government.”

Meeting Clegg is always something of a surprise. Even his own aides admit the public perception of the Lib Dem leader is of a weak and demoralised politician “trapped” in a coalition. Yet in person, Clegg always seems chipper and unfailingly optimistic.

“The fact is that Nick sees it completely differently,” says one friend. “He thinks the coalition is working well, tackling Labour’s economic legacy. He believes he is delivering on issues like social mobility or reforming tax, welfare or education.” Indeed Clegg thinks the Lib Dems are getting far more out of the coalition than anyone might reasonably expect, given they only won 57 seats at the last election. His problem is getting the public to believe it. Civil servants inside Downing Street confirm that the coalition works far more effectively behind closed doors than the public rows might suggest. “Internally, the tone has not changed as dramatically as it has externally,” says one. “Of course that is changing – at some point as the election approaches they are going to want to kill each other.”

Crucially, officials say the relationship between Clegg and Cameron remains strong and professional, based on a mutual understanding that a fracture at the top would probably end the coalition and their political careers.

That is not to say they are close personally, in spite of the honeymoon images of their first post-election press conference in the Downing Street rose garden. In private meetings with his officials, Clegg refers to the prime minister and chancellor as Cameron and Osborne – seldom by their official titles and never as Dave or George. Nor do they socialise much. “That’s not some kind of deliberate political statement,” says one friend of Clegg. “They just have their own friends and most of Nick’s are outside of politics.” Colleagues say that Clegg and his wife Miriam have dined with Cameron and his wife Samantha “once, maybe twice” since the election.

Nigel Gardner, a friend of Clegg’s who studied economics with Cameron at Brasenose College, Oxford, says the PM and his deputy are superficially similar – forties, public school backgrounds, fathers who worked in the City – but are in fact very different.

“Nick is a freethinker, he’s fascinated by political ideas,” Gardner says. He argues that Clegg – partly thanks to his Dutch mother – detests English class structures and has always been internationalist in outlook. “Can you imagine David Cameron sitting in the European parliament?” Gardner asks.

Clegg typically sees Cameron privately once or twice a week to hammer out coalition business, usually in the prime minister’s office. The deputy prime minister has his own team based in the Cabinet Office, a building linked to Number 10 by a connecting door that opens automatically when Clegg approaches. “He always says “thank you” to the invisible person he thinks opens it,” says one aide.

Clegg describes the relationship as “effective”: a lot of business is conducted by BlackBerry, especially at the weekend. One who has witnessed the private meetings says: “Their exchanges are very direct and frank: particularly so during the AV referendum. They don’t pull their punches. They make it clear what is acceptable to their parties, but it is never personal.” Clegg says: “We don’t beat about the bush and I think that’s what people expect from us.”

Although Clegg insists he and Cameron are different, in many respects there is a key similarity: “We both have a hinterland,” he once said. “Politics isn’t personal to us: with Gordon Brown it was emotional and personal. It was emotionally draining talking to him.”

Paddy Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader who identified a young Clegg as a future leader, says: “The strongest politicians are the ones who say: ‘I don’t have to do this, I have another life.’ Nick is not a political obsessive, but when he sets his mind to do something he’s utterly determined.”

In cabinet meetings, observers say Cameron remains courteous to his deputy. “The PM opens the discussion but always brings Clegg in early on: their contributions frame the debate,” says one. Similarly, the prime minister is attuned to Clegg’s precarious political position and – at least in the early days – would frequently ask at his 8.30am meeting with officials: “How can we help Nick?”

Even today, those who attend the “8.30” say Cameron often puts himself in his deputy’s shoes. “Cameron and Clegg are grown up – they realise it’s in their interests to make it work,” says one insider. Both want to ensure that the stand-off over Lords reform does not set a template of the two parties cancelling each other out, leading to a “lowest common denominator” government.

Civil servants say Clegg is good humoured and courteous under fire, even during the blackest times. “He’s endured extraordinary personal attacks and quite a lot of abuse,” says Norman Lamb, a Lib Dem health minister and friend. “He bears it with enormous grace – it would have broken many lesser people.”

Clegg’s team say he never shouts and “is not a stapler thrower” but can be very direct if confronted by substandard work. Indeed, Clegg has a very Dutch trait of being polite but blunt. For a politician he is also unusually inclined not to dissemble, for example, giving straight answers about his sexual history or about God: he says he is agnostic.

The Lib Dem leader knows he has to convince his party conference in Brighton this week that he can find the words and policies to shift public perceptions. Some in the media have predicted he will get a roughing up at the hands of his activists, but so far the party has stuck with its leader.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron at Downing Street, May 2010

But Clegg’s team admit they are running out of time. The Cleggmania of the 2010 election campaign belongs to another political age. For a brief period, the media were intrigued by the Lib Dem leader and his exotic life story: Miriam, his glamorous and high-flying Spanish wife, his Dutch mother Hermance, who survived the horrors of a wartime Japanese camp, and his banker-father Nicholas, whose aristocratic Russian mother fled the Bolshevik revolution. For a short while his skills as a linguist and former EU trade negotiator were seen as assets in a political leader, rather than further evidence to his critics that there was something not-quite-British about him. Those days are long gone.

Clegg can reel off a list of coalition policies that he claims would not have been implemented without the Lib Dems sharing power. One analysis by University College London suggests 75 per cent of the party’s manifesto was incorporated into the coalition agreement. His decision to veto planned changes to the House of Commons boundaries in revenge for the Tories blocking Lords reform raised Lib Dem spirits. “For the first time, you could sense the Tories thinking: there’s some steel here,” said one Lib Dem insider. It has also allowed Clegg to focus this autumn on issues voters really care about, rather than a grinding parliamentary battle over reforming the upper house.

But now he needs solid achievements. He will fight the next election claiming that – thanks to the Lib Dems – millions of low earners have been taken out of income tax, billions of pounds are being targeted at educating children from low-income backgrounds and that the green agenda (despite Tory scepticism) is being pushed through. But the economy must grow to prove the deficit reduction plan is working and the party leader has to show he is getting the balance right between flaunting his party’s distinctiveness (for example, promoting new wealth taxes) while showing solidarity towards the coalition. “The next year is vital,” says one adviser.

Opinion polls suggest voters would prefer Vince Cable as party leader, and the business secretary caused a stir in July, when he told FT Weekend Magazine he would “not exclude” running for the leadership, should it fall vacant. Meanwhile, Labour’s Ed Miliband has said he is “open for business” when it comes to dealing with Cable, a former Labour councillor, with whom he occasionally exchanges texts.

Clegg and Cable are hardly close, but the Lib Dem leader does not believe the business secretary is actively plotting against him (although others around him, notably Lord Oakeshott, are certainly stirring the pot). “Vince likes the attention, but we don’t think he’s organising a putsch,” says one ally.

For his part, Oakeshott believes Clegg needs more distinctively leftwing policies – such as Cable’s proposed mansion tax – saying there are no votes to be gained by plugging policies such as the pupil premium aimed at poorer children and raising the tax threshold for low-income families: “There are no votes in motherhood and apple-pie policies unless your opponents oppose them.”

Some (particularly Tory MPs) believe Clegg cannot possibly want to endure years more of personal attacks and sniping from within his own party and that he is already planning to step down in 2014 to resume his career as a Eurocrat in the hushed corridors of the Berlaymont. Clegg denies it categorically.

There is another factor. Miriam González Durántez, his wife, has told friends she has no desire to return to Brussels, the city where she forged her career and built her family; she now regards the Belgian capital as somewhat provincial and cannot understand why it took her so long to come to London.

Clegg denies suggestions that Miriam now feels it is time that her career as a trade lawyer took precedence and that the deputy prime minister should devote a bit more of his time to looking after their three young sons. Is she happy for him to carry on? “Yes – oh yes.”

Nick Clegg with his wife Miriam

He admits it has been hard balancing his job with his marriage and bringing up their sons: Miriam insisted Antonio, Alberto and Miguel have Spanish names to balance their “stubby” English surname. But he says that “oddly, it becomes easier rather than harder over time”. They live in Putney and deliberately chose not to live in a flat “behind the battlements of Whitehall”. He says the insults no longer get him down in the same way.

Clegg is adamant that voters will, when it comes to the reckoning, conclude that the Lib Dems were a positive force in government. Chris Huhne, who contested the Lib Dem leadership against Clegg in 2007, agrees that his former rival has every intention of taking the party into the next election: “He’s not a quitter, he wants to see it through.”

But to do that, Clegg has to shift a deadweight of public disappointment and hostility towards him. He also has to negotiate a string of autumn by-elections, local elections in 2013 and European elections in 2014. Added to which, is there any prospect he could plausibly lead the Lib Dems into a coalition with Labour, if that is how the next election pans out?

Huhne says: “Of course he could work with Labour, it’s ludicrous to suggest otherwise. If Nick had wanted to be a Tory, he would be a Tory.” Clegg says he believes in “multiparty pluralism, the competition of ideas” and his aides insist he does not see the Lib-Con coalition as a way of realigning to the right, a mirror image of the aborted 1990s Lib-Lab plan by Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair to “reunite” the left.

But Miliband says he would find it hard to work with the deputy prime minister and has made no secret that he would rather work with Cable. Miliband said in 2011 of his Lib Dem opposite number: “What is the problem about Nick Clegg? Where do you start? He was the person who promised new politics … I’m afraid he has become the exemplar of the old politics; of breaking your promises.” And while Clegg says it is not for Miliband to choose who leads the Lib Dems, there is a precedent for this kind of demand. One senior Lib Dem said: “Nick insisted Gordon Brown should step down as a precondition of any deal with Labour after the last election. It’s not our business telling other parties who should be their leader: that will come back to haunt Nick. Labour has not forgotten that.”

Clegg’s friends insist that the deputy leader “will come back, but he will come back as someone different”: Clegg Mark II will be sold as a leader who has been through the fire and done what was right for the country. One senior Lib Dem says: “Politicians can trade on trust or respect: Nick will be relying more on the respect card at the next election.”

David Laws says: “Whatever happened in government, he was never going to be the same Nick Clegg in 2015 as 2010: he was never going to be the fresh-faced young boy, untainted by office. I think people will realise that he’s grown in office, that he’s older and wiser.”

If Clegg gets to step down at a time of his choosing – a big “if” – his friends think it would be at some point in the next parliament, having nailed what he regards as the party’s biggest long-term problem: the perception that the Lib Dems are too flaky to govern. He says: “We’ve got to show that we’re up to it, and by 2015 I think we will have done.”

Laws says his friend “will be my leader at the next general election and well into the next parliament”; other intimates say there is no way he would want to fight a third election. Some believe he would not stay around for long if the 2015 election threw the Lib Dems into coalition with Labour. Laws insists Clegg could work with Labour, but admits that if he was forced to abandon the policies he had promoted in government with the Tories “that presents challenges”.

Clegg has already presided over a haemorrhage of the party’s town-hall base – last year’s local elections left the party with fewer than 3,000 councillors for the first time in its history. If he does fight the next election it is hard to see him surviving as leader if his party loses a significant number of its 57 seats.

Clegg’s family say he will not be stuck for things to do when he does leave British politics. His mother thinks he might turn to writing, maybe work for Greenpeace or Amnesty. The deputy prime minister agrees he does not fear life without politics: “I’m only 45, I’ve got small kids, I don’t want to spend my whole life in politics. I’m full of energy, there are plenty of other things I want to do in life.”

But not yet. As his party conference opens in Brighton, Clegg appears to have somehow drawn new strength from two-and-a-half years of battling against a political tide that has turned savagely against him. “I am on a journey; the party’s on a journey,” he says. He is convinced the journey will end well and puts his faith in “the genuine wisdom” of the British people. Some would call it self-delusion, but Clegg puts it differently: “I’m an unalloyed optimist”.

George Parker is the FT’s political editor

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