Nick Clegg: Rowing through the Storms

Posted On: 
2nd February 2012

As the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has found himself accused by turns of crypto-Conservatism and sabotage of Tory election pledges. Yet he insists he and David Cameron have plotted a common course – even if it’s now acceptable to air their differences in public.

Nick Clegg has finally sorted his left-right problem. More than 18 months into the coalition, the deputy prime minister has shrugged off the conflicting counsel from his team of experts on the vexed issue that’s been bugging him since his first week in office: which way to look in PMQs.

“You would not believe the contradictory advice that I get. ‘You should sit here, you should sit there. You should look up to the right, you should look to the left’,” Clegg says.

“I have given up trying to work out what people expect me to do. So if I smile, some people say: ‘You shouldn’t smile – you look as if you’re enjoying yourself.’ If I grimace they say ‘You look terribly sad and unhappy.’ So then I try and sort of not smile, but smile. So I have basically decided to ignore all the advice and just sit and listen. It’s only half an hour a week.”

PMQs is the one time in the parliamentary timetable when the DPM has to be literally mute, a silent presence on the front bench as David Cameron and Ed Miliband take lumps out of each other every Wednesday.

But as he holds forth in his large suite of offices overlooking Horseguards, the Liberal Democrat leader is clearly keen to be heard loud and clear, both inside and outside government. And on his political left-right problem – looking like a one-man ‘squeezed middle’ in the overall debate – Clegg sticks firmly, resolutely to his line that his party’s great prize of this Parliament is to combine its centre-ground roots with the hard-won credibility of being in office.

The Lib Dems are punching above their weight on Europe (as evidenced by the more ‘constructive’ approach by the PM this week), agitating for tougher lines on bonuses, and even recently trying to pre-empt the chancellor’s Budget on lower taxes for the lower-earners.

For Clegg, the differences of emphasis are now just part of the ‘rhythm’ of coalition.

“You should never look at the way coalition parties relate to each other, or indeed how the two kind of party leaders are seen alongside each other, in a snapshot way,” he says. “You are always going to get a rhythm to this. It was absolutely right for David Cameron and I to really pull the stops out at the beginning to show that this was a positive, workable arrangement. In the run-up to the general election, you may remember, the tabloids were screaming, saying that if there was a hung Parliament locusts would descend from the sky and the sun would be blotted out, you know… so we needed for those first few months to show the most important thing of all, which is this is a government that works, and actually works rather well.

“Of course, after that phase you then get [that] we’re different parties, we do have different instincts, we do have different values. I just think we are quite relaxed in government that we have our differences – sometimes they are played out in private, sometimes they are played out in public.

“But I personally think the country is quite relaxed about it as well. They kind of get that, just because we sit next to each other in the House of Commons on the government benches, [that] does not mean that we are identical. Far from it.”

Yet with the polls putting them in a poor third, not everyone in his party is convinced that the Lib Dems aren’t being made to look irrelevant, with Lord Steel recently telling this magazine that the main ‘wins’ by his party had been mere ‘details’ on legislative changes. Clegg gently rejects the analysis of his party’s first leader, and lists some ‘big, set-piece reforms… which are Lib Dem to their core’:

“New, never-done-before entitlements for two-year-olds – something I personally insisted on in government; Vince’s massive expansions of apprenticeships on a scale this country hasn’t seen in a generation – those are the big things. I think keeping more money that you earn, in your pocket, matters. I think having more money for kids at school who come from disadvantaged backgrounds really kind of matters. Those are things… they don’t play out, I agree, in the very, very sometimes mind numbingly detailed undergrowth of legislative battles in the House of Lords or the House of Commons, but they are increasingly going to make a difference to people’s lives.”

Activity in that undergrowth of the House of Lords is intriguing, however, with the government’s progress frequently stalled with the help of sceptical Liberal Democrat peers. Are their rebellions in any way licensed?

“No, no, it’s not licensed. I think it’s the nature of the kind of legislation we are introducing. When you are touching things as emotive as the NHS, what support you give to vulnerable people in society, what kind of aid you give to people when they want use the law to defend themselves, these go right to the core of what politicians care about – and in particular, what Lib Dem politicians care about.”

And with Tory peers reportedly unimpressed with their lordly coalition colleagues, Clegg pleads understanding.

“Let’s be blunt: I am asking, day in, day out, Liberal Democrat peers to vote on things that they wouldn’t do in a month of Sundays if it was a Liberal Democrat government. So I don’t think people should judge the Lib Dem peers too harshly. I think they should be judged on what is finally decided. So, for instance, on the health bill, frankly I am incredibly grateful that people like Shirley Williams dug her heels in on the health bill because it’s a whole lot better than it would have been otherwise, a whole lot better. On this latest one this last week [welfare reform], I think you will find that the concern they expressed about… the transition with which, the manner with which you implement the [benefit] cap, were totally legitimate concerns.”

Notwithstanding his gratitude for the likes of Shirley Williams, Clegg’s zeal for Lords reform remains sharp, despite claims that constitutional tinkering could distract the coalition. “I don’t think there’s any question of me or anyone else getting bogged down. You can do more than one thing at once in politics. As it happens I care much more about the pupil premium and a fairer tax system than I do about House of Lords reform, considerably more. I have written more books about it, I have put it on the front page of our manifesto.

“But I just think that… there’s always an excuse not to finish a job of political reform. And when people say we are rushing, I’ve just to got to say ‘How long are we going to take?’ This debate has been going on for 100 years.”

On another long-avoided reform, party funding, Clegg says he hopes to make an announcement ‘soon’. “I’m certainly not backing off from it, I just think the system stinks and it’s going to blow up in our face as a political class again, and we’ve got to try and do something about it, even if we can’t do it the whole way that Christopher Kelly and his colleagues recommended."

One hot topic the DPM is keen to avoid, however, is Chris Huhne’s speeding fines affair. How personally let down would he feel if the energy secretary was charged?

“I’ve no idea what the CPS is going to do. Chris has no idea. I’ve known Chris for how many years? Chris was one of the only Liberal Democrats at my wedding. Chris and I go back a long way. I keep reading that we are great rivals. Yeah, we were rivals [but] actually I’ve known him as long as I’ve known almost anybody in politics.”

But will he be damaged too if charges are laid? “I don’t have a crystal ball. The CPS, I don’t know how the CPS works, seems to be taking its time to decide what it wants to do. I can only tell you what I know: which is that Chris says that he didn’t do anything wrong.”

Speaking of possible ministerial reshuffles, would he bring back David Laws at non-cabinet level if needed? “I’m not wildly hierarchical and David certainly isn’t. It’s one of the many things that I like so much about David, he’s a sort of an unusual combination of being a politician but actually quite a modest character, which you don’t find very often in politics. David is not after status. What I would like to see David do is to be close to the centre of power in one shape or form with, ideally, quite a broad view of government policy, because I think he’s got an ability to see the connections between policies – which is quite unusual.”

Clegg is equally bold about his foreign policy priorities. Recently, he nudged the coalition towards what seemed a more pro-Palestinian stance in the Middle East, declaring that Israel was ‘doing immense damage’ to peace with its West Bank settlements. Iran is, of course, the other big issue in the Foreign Office in-tray. Does he worry that there will be a pre-emptive strike by Israel against Iran?

“Of course I worry that there will be a military conflict and that certain countries might seek to take matters into their own hands. That’s why we have been very much at the forefront of demonstrating to the world that a) there’s a big problem – Iran appears to want to illegally or illicitly arm itself with a nuclear weapon – and secondly, there are very tough things we can do which are not military steps in order to place pressure on Iran.”

On more domestic matters, Clegg is just as firm in asserting the Lib Dem approach to taxation, with married tax breaks very low down his list. When asked recently, Downing Street sources stressed that the Tory policy was ‘absolutely safe and unchanged’. What does he think of that?

“I think the Coalition Agreement is very clear that the precedence on tax cuts is the [personal] allowance and we haven’t come anywhere near to delivering what we set out we would do. So there’s a very clear chronology to which tax cuts are most important.”

It’s a question of tone, but the difference is clear. As it happens, another area where Clegg and Cameron are similar but not identical is in their battle against the forty-something waistline bulge. While the PM goes running, Clegg gets up at the ‘ungodly hour of six in the morning’ to hit the rowing machine in his local gym. He also still regularly uses his rowing machine in the Cabinet Office. With a hint of competitive dad syndrome, he says “I still use it regularly, thus” – pointing to a waist that seems trimmer than his prime minister’s. (Sadly, he kills off one the Whitehall urban myth that he sweats and gives orders to staff at the same time. “I’ve never had a meeting on the rowing machine,” he smiles).

Still, the DPM is not keen on one particularly ambitious form of differentiation currently being punted by some Lib Dems: the idea of their ministers pulling out of the coalition six months before the 2015 general election, while still supporting the government in confidence votes. The plan is seen by some as a way of helping boost both parties ahead of polling day. Clegg is robust: “I don’t think we should play silly buggers with the country. We’ve said that we are going to govern for five years. We should govern for five years. I think endless faffing about what we might do in this or that month, I think it would be completely lost on people.”

The message is clear: this coalition has to go the distance, even if its motto turns out to be ‘different strokes for different folks’. Cameron may run and Clegg may row, but they both have to pull in the same direction – no matter which way the DPM looks in PMQs.

CLEGG ON...THE HOUSE OF LORDS

“I don’t think the vast majority of people think about the House of Lords at all. I don’t think it impinges on their daily life at all. When it does, like it did this week [on the benefit cap], how can I put this politely? I suspect many people will think: ‘I am not sure this is a chamber in real touch with my everyday concerns.’”

CLEGG ON...LABOUR'S ARROGANT ATTACKS

“One week it’s one word, the next it’s another. I personally think that when politicians think that their success hinges on attaching a particular adjective to their rivals then they are in serious trouble.”

CLEGG ON...WHAT HE IS READING

“I’ve just finished a book called The Somnambulist by Essie Fox, who is the wife of my previous chief executive Chris Fox, and I’ve just started Jonathan Freedland’s latest book. Funnily enough, I don’t read thrillers very much. I always read a novel. I can’t finish the day without reading a novel. I’ve read novels every night all my life. And I have, I’m afraid, an unhealthy disinterest in political biographies, especially autobiographies where politicians say ‘I was great, I was wot done it’.”

CLEGG ON...BRINGING UP HIS CHILDREN

“I have no tips to give because I fail on every single argument. I’ve got quite disciplinarian about no computer games during the week at all. So I kind of won that battle, after months of attrition. But they can watch a bit of telly in the evening before going to bed.”