Let Clegg be Clegg (just not toooo much)

If, like me, you’re an admirer of Nick Clegg — his grit, honesty and openness — there will have been plenty to admire this week. If, like me, you occasionally despair of Nick Clegg — the frankness can turn into a gaffe — there will have been plenty to make you despair this week.

First of all, the Best of Clegg…

As Nicholas Watt notes in the Guardian, Nick has been ‘finding his feet’, and ‘starting to show in public what he has always claimed in private – that he stands up to Cameron’. This has been clear from the Lib Dem pressure to modify the Coalition’s plans for the NHS, Nick’s personal support for fairer votes, and the announcement of his social mobility strategy (notwithstanding the predictable sniping).

And then there’s the other bit of Nick Clegg…

Frankly, I don’t give a toss about the media’s snarky digs at Nick for happily confessing in his interview with Jemima Khan in the New Statesman to “crying regularly to music”. Nor do I have any time for those gutless commentators whose flip ‘man-up’ advice to Nick ignores his very real and human concerns at the impact his job, and the unpopularity that’s accompanied it, is having on his children. As Olly Grender notes in her New Statesman blog:

I had a chat last week with someone at editoral level at the Daily Mail. I asked a simple question: isn’t it the case that, whatever the Lib Dems do, whether you agree with them or not, you are likely to praise the Tories for the policy, but not Nick Clegg? I was assured that my assumption was entirely accurate. … Clegg could walk on water right now and the Daily Mail would see it as a failure or a blunder.

That the media has it in for Nick is obvious — but it does kinda make it even more important that Nick avoid self-inflicted wounds, too. And there is one very obvious clanger in his Staggers’ interview: “I didn’t even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees.”

True, it was not one of the party’s top four campaign priorities during the election — but the pledge and the photos speak for themselves. For Nick to attempt to downplay the significance of the party’s anti-fees stance is faintly ludicrous, the more so as a media-handler was ever-present to prevent, as Ms Khan herself notes, her best attempts ‘to get him to say the wrong thing’.

How to reconcile the Two Cleggs?

I think there are three things to recognise.

First, that Nick won’t change, nor should he. Much of what I’ve always admired about him is his easy, open intelligence, his willingness to think hard and seriously about an issue. (I just wish, very occasionally, he’d think a little harder before he speaks.)

Secondly, though, that — as Olly points out — no matter how careful Nick is, what he says or how he says it, there are chunks of the media (notably the Mail and Telegraph) that will twist and distort to suit their own agenda.

And thirdly, that beleaguered as Nick might sometimes feel, the public does not mutely adopt the media’s prejudices. In her interview, Ms Khan tells an illuminating anecdote:

A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: “I couldn’t resist such a unique opportunity to say, ‘Stick With It!’ The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it’s tough but it’s very necessary. All the best.” … He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, “as if it’s a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg”.

The media narrative is that Nick is the most unpopular politician in Britain. As I’ve pointed out before, that’s not true: most Tory voters and a majority of Lib Dems rate him as doing a good job; Labour voters do appear to dislike him. So it is not that Nick is unpopular; it’s that he’s divisive.

For a politician, that’s not all bad. At least it means people have an opinion. Eighteen months ago, Nick’s popularity ratings were higher, but that was a sign of indifference, of powerlessness, not of strength. Nick has often spoken of his liberal, British values: tolerance and justice. There are other values, too: respect for tenacity, and a liking for the underdog to have its day.

In other words: stick with it, Nick.

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13 Comments

  • Good article, Stephen. I support Nick and think he’s doing a good job in incredibly difficult circumstances, but I also think there are things he can do to improve the media situation without compromising who he is as a person.

    If he learns just one lesson this week, I hope it’s to stop using denials eg ‘I’m not a punchbag’. It only gives the media an excuse to put the words ‘Clegg’ and ‘punchbag’ together in a headline and the two become associated even though he denied it. If he used positive wording to deny things instead, it would be so much harder to misquote when the article is then reported elsewhere.

  • Simon McGrath 10th Apr '11 - 11:23am

    Good article. But Nick does have to avoid some of the dumb stuff he says in interviews. Voters like strong leaders and saying you cry just doesnt go down well.

  • If Nick Clegg is such an asset why do local Lib Dems seem very keen to make clear the difference between them and the government? Neither David Cameron nor Ed Milliband are unwelcome in election leaflets for Welsh, Scottish and local elections.

    That said, I’m sure we’d all prefer the focus to be on policy rather than personality, and while the Lib Dems do seem to finally have developed some sort of background with respect to the NHS (ministers excepted – happy to go along with Tory plans until the activists kicked up a fuss) the tuition fees issue looks to be an unmitigated disaster; expensive, harmful to social mobility and utterly unwanted by everybody in HE except the senior management who are looking forward to the massive salary increases privatisation brings for their class.

  • Gareth Jones 10th Apr '11 - 1:29pm

    @ g – To be fair it wasn’t long ago Labour activists (and the Central party) were avoiding showing any photo of Blair and later Brown. Government means hard decisions which means unpopularity.

    As for the Fees debacle I’m afraid I have to agree; if it was a manifesto promise which had to be suspended due to a coalition agreement then I’d be upset but it would be understandable. A pledge is different, certainly in the eyes of the electorate.

    We will have to wait to see the impact it will have on Social Mobility but with more and more Universities charging the max then the whole subject of university funding, size, focus etc needs to be discussed as a nation.

  • @Gareth Jones

    You’re right about Blair and Brown of course, but I think at that point both were resigned to this and neither bleated about being a human punchbag, although Brown was subject to astonishing unwarrented abuse over his disability and Scottishness, but just got on with the business of government. They also had strong enough majorities that their personal unpopularity barely impaired their influence.

    As for the fees, it’s not just the breaking of a manifesto pledge, it’s the utter cack handed implementation of the policy. Willetts and Cable had good reputations before becoming ministers, Cable’s is now in ruins and Willett’s is heading that way too. Don’t forget that the entire balls up has its origins in the cutting of the teaching budget by a massive amount meaning that just to stand still universities had to charge as much as they could get away with, and it turned out that academics are smarter than government ministers.

  • I’m not a fan of Nick Clegg, however, he does seem be standing-up a bit more for the Liberal Democrats as a result of conference.

    What does that tell us? Simply that if he didn’t start to carry out the will of the party, things would get very sticky for him.

    Regarding his Jemima Khan interview, just another misjudgement – they seem to be commonplace these days. I wish he would keep his mouth shut because he makes us look wet as a party.

    As for the woman on the train and how brilliant the coalition government is, it’s not, it’s confrontational and incompetent possessing a dangerous arrogance. Just think Lansely, Gove, Fox, IDS, the smirking Osborne, Hague, and as ‘g’ says above, we can now add Cable to that list.

    Even though I don’t like Clegg, we really do need him to be at his best because of the AV referendum. Grizzling nonsense to Jemima Khan is not his best.

  • @Frank
    Just think Lansely, Gove, Fox, IDS, the smirking Osborne, Hague, and as ‘g’ says above, we can now add Cable

    I think you’ve unfairly described Lansley, Osborne and Hague as incompetent, they’re not, the first two know exactly what they’re doing and the former only slipped up when news of his reforms became public, don’t forget until then he’d fooled (I hope) the Lib Dem part of cabinet into endorsing them.
    Osborne is staggeringly competent at limiting the fallout on the banking industry and rewarding traditional Tory business at the expense of the rest, he’s also a political strategist of some considerable talent; how else do you explain an apparently weak government marching very much to the beat of his economic drum even though at least part of it opposed his approach pre-May 2010.
    Hague is just unlucky.
    The rest are remarkably talentless though, I would add Eric Pickles to that list though, a man who seems to delight in punishing non-Tory voting parts of the country, and Danny Alexander for not doing much at all to challenge Osborne.

  • @g

    Yes, I stand corrected, I should have used the word ‘dangerous and reckless’ rather than incompetent to describe Lansley, Osborne and Hague. Although Cameron keeps trying to make him look incompetent, Hague, is I think competent.

    What’s more, Clegg was bang-on target in the run-up to the election when he described Cameron as ‘fake’ – I hope he hasn’t changed his mind!

  • @frank

    I think ‘feckless’ is the word you are looking for

  • Well said Stephen.
    I Voted for Chris Huhne, but admit I was wrong now that an election has put our leader on the tight-rope of coalition. Chris would probably not have made the kind of “gaffe” that makes a human being out of a polished politician. They can become so polished as to be a sort of speaking machine. Predictable in every word.

    I’ve just listened to the Naughtie interview on Today.
    How quickly the media and Labour try to project our natural concerns and discussions about coalition into the party break-up that is their dearest wish.

    It is the journalists, made to spin a pre-determined message, like time serving automatons, that I find contemptible; sort of Orwellian..
    The charge of “hypocrite” because Nick was trying to end a privilege from which he had benefited is the most astonishing example!
    So long as Nick makes the occasional gaffe I will know he has not become a completely teflon-coated politician.

    .

  • I read all of this article because it seemed to be making sense, compared to all the optimistic nonsense that is published on this site. But I disagree with this:

    “The media narrative is that Nick is the most unpopular politician in Britain. As I’ve pointed out before, that’s not true: most Tory voters and a majority of Lib Dems rate him as doing a good job; Labour voters do appear to dislike him. So it is not that Nick is unpopular; it’s that he’s divisive.”

    Clegg is not only disliked by Labour voters, but by the majority of Lib Dem voters (ie the more than half who have deserted the party) who perceived the Libs as being on the left. The fact that Labour alone disliked Clegg could never have resulted in the narrative in the national media that he is the most unpopular politician in then country. Rather, a critical mass was achieved, through the dislike of Labour and Lid Dem voters – it is this critical mass that is very dangerous, because it is all but irreversible. When opinion reaches critical mass, you’re doomed.

  • Cllr Nick Cotter 15th Apr '11 - 10:18pm

    Campaigning on the Doorsteps I beg to differ that we are “doomed” !!

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