Nick Clegg in the Observer: “I am a hop and a skip from Cameron’s office.”

Nick Clegg is interviewed in today’s Observer, and — as ever with Nick — there are many eminently quotable lines. So here’s a filleted gamble through what he has to say…

On the Lib/Con Coalition:

“It’s seen as unnatural. It’s like cross-breeding between animal strains that shouldn’t,” he says, finally alighting on a comparison from the world of dogs. “We’ve got a sort of Crufts-like language about politics. It’s all about purism and tribalism. And you’re dealing with a government which is a mongrel mix of different blends and ideologies.”

On how the two parties are governing together:

Nick’s not interested in “tearing strips off the Tories”, or brandishing trophies of Lib Dem achievement —

“The moment we get drawn into that sort of dynamic, two things will happen. Firstly, it will actually make us seem more irrelevant than we are because it will perpetuate the idea that the point of being in the coalition for the Liberal Democrats is to have a little shopping list of achievements, the assumption being the rest of it is Conservative policy. The truth is much more radical than that. All the big judgments are genuinely jointly taken by David Cameron and myself. That’s why I didn’t want to have a department, that’s why I’m a hop and a skip from his office.”

On the behind-the-scenes negotiating:

“It does mean tug of war.” He goes on: “I’ve just had a heated discussion with a [Tory] cabinet colleague about a classic Conservative/Liberal argument.” He will not say about what. “I passionately believe that for a coalition government to work you have to keep those battles behind closed doors.” To play them out in public would “poison” the coalition.

On moderating the Tories in government:

“We’ve clearly dragged them a long way on political reform: fixed-term parliaments, [an elected] House of Lords.” More contentiously, he argues that the Tories have “completely changed” their posture towards Europe. He then jokes: “If you really want to know the truth, I think we have helped release the inner Liberal in a fair number of Conservatives.” He cites Ken Clarke’s reforms to criminal justice as pure “Liberal thinking”, saying: “I doubt very much that would have surfaced, frankly.”

On the Lib Dems’ poll ratings:

He wants to sound unbothered. “If you say, I’ve got to stop doing something, do a screeching U-turn, because the polls are going in this direction or that direction, you end up doing nothing. That is what happened to Labour for years. They constantly tried to chase these little needles on the graph.” Anyway, he says, “it just doesn’t feel like that on the ground” — always the refuge of the politician facing a falling poll rating. He claims party membership is up 15,000 since the beginning of the year — “a third of that since the election” — and that Labour is fibbing when it claims to be getting hordes of defectors from the Lib Dems. “It’s fiction. It’s a lie.”

On losing the votes of disaffected left-wing Labour voters:

“I’m not denying that there is a chunk of people who turned to the Liberal Democrats at the height of Blair’s authoritarianism and his fascination with Bush and Cheney and said ‘Ha, these Liberal Democrats, they’re the leftwing party I want. They’re the leftwing conscience of the Labour party.’ That was always going to unwind at some point, particularly when Labour went back into opposition and started sloganeering leftwards.” He almost says good riddance to these voters. “The vocation of Liberalism is not to be a leftwing ghetto for people who are disaffected by the Labour party.”

On the Coalition’s programme of austerity cuts:

He acknowledges that many people who voted Lib Dem “feel quite understandably uncomfortable”. Some actually feel much more strongly than that: they feel betrayed. He also accepts that this is a gamble. “It would be abnormal, it would be unnatural, it would be inhuman not to be nervous about doing something as difficult as this. I think we as a government should be constantly challenged: Are we doing it in the right way? Are we doing it at the right pace? Are we doing it fairly? I wake up every day and ask myself those questions. … I’m absolutely convinced that saying we’re going to do more than the previous government wasn’t just the right thing to do, it was the totally unavoidable thing to do.”

On David Cameron as Prime Minister:

“He has adapted very, very quickly to what it’s like to lead a coalition government. He’s shown real flexibility and real pragmatism. He hasn’t been dogmatic, he hasn’t been doctrinaire.” Has he the potential to be a great prime minister? Clegg body-swerves that one. “I think this government has the capacity to be a great, reforming government, yeah, of which he will be prime minister.”

On who he wants to win tha Labour leadership contest:

“I think I will seriously blight the chances of any Labour candidate by saying anything nice about them since I’m public enemy number one in their contest.”

The Observer then vox pops seven conferenece delegates — all of them, interestingly, fully in favour of the Coalition agreement. Here’s one as a flavour:

Lisa Smart (Lifelong Liberal Democrat voter, but only joined party at the turn of the year):

“It was the only sensible course of action. What was the alternative? Either not going into coalition, which meant going into some sort of informal agreement, or going into coalition with Labour, which was not what the country voted for. So this was the grown-up thing to do. It is probably better for the country that things in the coalition agreement are seen through to their conclusion. However, that means the Lib Dem leadership should listen to the membership because there are certain policies in the agreement that would never have been in the Lib Dem manifesto, such as looking at cuts in certain areas.”

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  • Great interview. I hope he’s like this in his main conference speech. I think he knows his biggest enemy isn’t the label “sellout’, it’s the label “bland.”

  • His biggest enemy isnt the label sellout its the actual sellout.Oh and using phrases like a hop and a skip what a happy twee phrase for some one about to reap the whirlwind of working people with their lives and futures destroyed.

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