The Deputy Prime Minister is calm and reasonable. Much of Britain is, too. So why isn't he popular?by Edward Docx / May 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Sometimes the Prime Minister and I have pretty ferocious debates,” says Clegg. “But you’ve got to punch through that. It’s very British.” © Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
I sit down opposite the Deputy Prime Minister just as the Prime Minister calls. We’re on a Great Western train from Bristol to London. Outside, the English afternoon is passing by in a blur of Betjeman and Brunel. We have cups of tea. Over the fields are massed a flotilla of Boris Johnson clouds—vaguely alarming, bulky and off-white.
This is early May and the Daily Mail has just published leaked private correspondence between Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, his party colleague and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that shows that the Liberal Democrats are “resisting” Tory plans to introduce mandatory sentences for knife crimes. When he arrived at Paddington, I heard Clegg say that he was “pissed off,” but now the tone of his phone conversation with the PM is cordial and congenial—a business-like conversation between two mutually well-disposed brothers-in-law discussing how best to deal with an upcoming wedding anniversary at which a great deal of fighting is envisaged between the variously insane relatives of their very different families. There is a fair bit of “OK, David, I’ll call you over the weekend… Yes, let’s talk it through… We should… No, that would be good.”
I have been following Nick Clegg for several months. I first met him in person at a private dinner back in January. Today, I am with him as he travels round Gloucestershire. We will catch up again at Chevening, the grace and favour residence in the Kent countryside that he shares with William Hague, the Foreign Secretary. From the gallery of the House of Commons, I have also been watching his exchanges with Harriet Harman at Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions. I find his position remarkable—in terms of the history of the Liberal Party and its successor the Liberal Democrats, in terms of the deal he managed to strike after the 2010 election and in terms of the day-to-day running of the coalition government. As a person and a leader, he is extraordinarily resilient and—in every sense—central to contemporary British politics. Most of all, I want to understand how a man of centrist convictions leading a centrist party in a country whose political instincts are broadly centrist should now find himself fighting a return to the margins.