Interview: Nick Clegg’s year in the eye of the storm

Sunday’s Observer featured a lengthy interview with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg from its chief political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley. Rawnsley takes a look at what has been a tumultuous year for the deputy PM, covering a whole variety of topics along the way.

Here’s a short extract from the interview:

His very existence as deputy prime minister is a daily reminder to the Conservatives and their tribalist mouthpieces in the media that the Tories failed to achieve a clear election win, even against an opponent as unpopular as Gordon Brown. For many on the left, Clegg is the great betrayer who sold out when he contracted his shotgun marriage with David Cameron.

“Getting it in the neck from both sides, yeah,” says Clegg. Basically pretty friendless, I remark. “Yeah,” he says. “Both left and right are enraged.”

He likes to locate this in a bigger picture. “You have a political and media elite who have an idiom by which they describe politics. It’s highly, highly polarised. It’s right, left, red, blue, up, down, victorious, crushed.”

This is spoken with feeling by a man who has whooshed and plunged on “an emotional rollercoaster” over the past 12 months. He was up when he stole the show at the first of the election leaders’ TV debates; then he was down when the Lib Dems lost five seats on election night despite gaining nearly a million extra votes. He was victorious in becoming the first Lib Dem leader to lead the party into government; and then – if not crushed, certainly hammered – by the backlash that soon followed.

“I do ask myself: did we take the right decision going into the coalition? Have we taken the right decisions since? Are the progressive values of the party that I lead being properly reflected?”

On the first choice he made – the big call from which everything else has flowed – he is “completely and bullishly assertive” that “it was the right thing to go into coalition with the Conservatives”.

“I understand a lot of people on the left, maybe people who read the Observer, they’re not happy with the coalition. I do ask them: what would they have done? Couldn’t have gone in with Labour. You couldn’t have provided a stable government with Labour. If we hadn’t gone into coalition with the Conservatives, as night follows day there would have been another election within a few months. You probably would have had an outright Conservative victory.”

Fair-minded observers would surely agree that his analysis is essentially correct. Neither the maths nor the personalities added up to make it feasible to form a coalition with Labour. The Lib Dems would have been ridiculed for eternity if they had passed up their first chance since the second world war to be part of a government. It is highly probable that the Tories, the only party with any money, would have formed a minority government and then dashed into a second, autumn election which they would have won outright.

You can read the whole interview with Nick here.

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  • “If we hadn’t gone into coalition with the Conservatives, as night follows day there would have been another election within a few months. You probably would have had an outright Conservative victory.”

    An Autumn election would have been likely, but not necessarily inevitable. A supply and confidence deal with the lib-dems might have suited some in the tory party. While it is of course true that the conservatives would have had a money advantage in the case of a second election (they also had a large one for the orginal), if we had been reasonable in attempting to negotiate a supply and confidence deal we could have put responsibility for the second election on the tories, which the electorate really don’t like, combined with the moderately good economic news over the summer, should have made for at the very least an unpredictable outcome.

  • While to electorate may not like going to the polls unnecessarily, they were happy to give Harold Wilson a second term of government twice – first in 1966, two years after the previous election and second in 1974,only six months after the previous election. This was because the electorate seemed to think it was reasonable to give a Government with a small – on the case of 1974 a non-existent – Common’s majority a chance of implementing its manifesto in full. Had the Liberal Democrats spurned David’s Cameron’s offer of coalition, the chances are that the Tories too would have succeeded in achieving an overall majority in a subsequent election, even if only a small one. Moreover a lot of their gains would have been at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. After the last General Election the Liberal Democrats were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t. At least they can claim that their decision to go into coalition was in the interests of the country. To sit in the side-lines would have branded them as a party only interested in opposition and picking up protest votes.

  • I believe the vitriol and abuse that Nick Clegg is being subjected to has become hysterical and fashionable. “Kicking Clegg” has gone too far. BUT at the same time I believe that the decision to ‘go in’ with the Tories was a catastrophe for the Liberal Democrat Party and a betrayal of a big proportion of LibDem voters. The government we have is, make no mistake, a Tory one. And the electorate know it. And a large minority of that electorate do not like it – and they blame the Lib Dems. After the last election the LibDems could have (and should have) given a simple take-it-or-leave-it shopping list to the Conservatives in return for a coalition government, the demands should have been: A referendum on full PR; Lansley and his NHS plans to be buried; Bankers to be reigned in (as per pre-election Cable); No massive hike in tuition fees; A more reasoned approach to the deficit so that poorer people would not suffer disproportionately. The LibDems would have been seen as sticking to their beliefs. If the Tories refused this then the Lib Dems should have agreed to only support a Tory minority government on day-to-day basis. The Tories would have refused to do a deal, but the Lib Dems would have gained huge respect from millions of voters. In reality the Lib Dems wanted a piece of government action and asked for virtually nothing from the Tories in return for being a part of government. This may or may not have led to another election, who can say? It would however prevented the Tory government behaving like Thatcherites with the spectacle of the LibDems backing them all the way. In my opinion the LibDems still do not realise how much respect they have lost, and how much they are despised for appearing to be unprincipled. After today they will begin to realise.

  • @Dave Page. It may be that the numerically the LibDems have achieved 75% of their manifesto, but whether you or I like it, the voting public just don’t see it that way. In the 25% of “not achieved” they see lots of nasty spending cuts that look suspiciously Tory ideologically-driven – all apparently enthusiastically backed by the LibDems in coalition. The NHS (more popular than at any time in its history) appears to be the victim of the Small State mob, with privatisation lurking. EMA is to be cut, the fees hike, Bankers are back to their old ways and are unscathed – while those victims of the banks’ behaviour are seeing their living standards cut in part to fund those bankers excesses. In my view voters are not separating out the LibDem bits of policy (OK) from the Tory bits (NASTY), voters are in fact probably blaming the LIbDems more than the Tories for their role in unpleasant government policies on the grounds that “they of all people should know better”. Voters, rightly or wrongly, do not appear to be laying much blame at Labour’s door.

  • @Graham

    Perhaps, but not in the elections in the 20s or 51′. My point was not that the tories couldn’t win a majority but that it was hardly a foregone conclusion. To say that we as libdems were forced into the coalition against our will is not really true, we had a real choice, although admittedly neither option was particularly good.

  • @dave Page

    The Lib Dems have done a great job of sticking to our policies and our principles.

    Excuse me while I lift my jaw off the floor from that little gem.

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