In an exclusive interview with Harrison Jones of JUS News, the former deputy prime minister reminisces about destroying a cacti collection and explains why British democracy is broken
Combining a bland shirt, baggy pullover and casual jeans, Nick Clegg appears to be opting for a ‘relaxed Dad’ vibe.
The sun is setting in a leafy, posh suburb of his Sheffield Hallam constituency, and a homely smell is coming from the secluded Liberal Democrat office.
Before a word is said, the former deputy prime minister strides into the waiting room and announces an offer of Welsh teacakes. They are remarkably good – though our photographer is not to know, having dropped hers on the floor. The staff politely pretend not to notice.
Clegg is smiley, friendly, polite and does an amusing mock impersonation of Boris Johnson to boot. He speaks five languages (English, Dutch, French, Spanish and German) and generally exudes a charming intelligence. Yet among all British politicians, he is arguably the most hated by my generation – and there is no shortage of competition for the mantle.
His persona hardens as we turn to tuition fees, which the coalition government infamously trebled despite a Lib Dem pledge to abolish them.
“I know this is a difficult thing for many people to hear,” he sighs, glancing at a minder sitting beside him for no apparent reason other than to say “last question”, when our allotted time is up.
“But what we ended up doing on education was very progressive: massively increasing expenditure on kids at the other end of the educational cycle; introducing the pupil premium; introducing free school meals in the early years of primary school, whilst – of course – saving money in higher education.”
He’s defensive on the topic and feisty about his record in government generally: anyone would think he feels picked on. Yet his claim that “there was no earthly prospect, in practical politics, that I could put (the tuition fee) policy into practice”, seems flimsy at best, especially given his thoughts on the coalition.
“I had a stranglehold on what we did or didn’t do as a government. You couldn’t carry things in Parliament without my say so,” he says definitively, trying to have his Welsh teacake and eat it.
“If I had pulled the plug the Conservatives would’ve been out of power – the one thing the Conservatives like more than anything else. It’s like the referendum: David Cameron at one point tried to persuade me that as a coalition we should introduce this referendum. I said ‘no, not on your nelly, of course not.’”
“We had them over a barrel because they wanted to stay in government.”
It’s a counter-intuitive perspective, given that Clegg has long been portrayed as Cameron’s lap dog in the coalition and failed to enact many key policies from before the 2010 election.
But the narrative that the Lib Dems were a moderating force on Cameron’s government is now gaining traction, given what the Conservatives have been doing since ruling alone. Their stance on education is an obvious example. It’s “really out of order”, Clegg argues.
“We made a commitment that the higher threshold at which you start repaying (fees) would keep going up – that was part of the deal. We said ‘previously you were paying back from £15,000 upwards, now its £21,000 and it’ll go up with inflation’. They’ve frozen that, so it’s no wonder Martin Lewis is quite rightly saying this is breach of contract.
“And to turn the bursaries for kids from the lowest income families into loans is deeply regressive – that’s really adding insult to injury.”
Clegg seems deeply pessimistic about the chances of reversing such Conservative policies, believing Theresa May would “walk” a (“highly unlikely”) early election. He is utterly damning about Labour’s woes, and describes British democracy as “no longer working”, because “there is absolutely no chance of any other single party taking power away from the present incumbents.”
Amid rumours of collaboration between the three main parties’ moderate wings, the 50-year-old repeatedly fails to rule out the creation of a new centrist party.
With Labour shifting to the left and the Conservatives right, there has been some cooperation between more moderate figures like Clegg, Tony Blair and Anna Soubry. A formal arrangement – in a similar vein to the Social Democratic Party of the 1980s – is reportedly being whispered about in Westminster.
Asked directly if he would be open to such a move, he says: “I think a realignment in British politics is inevitable, yeah. But I think it’ll happen in a rather slow motion way.”
Pressed again, he adds: “All sorts of things could happen, but that is galloping so far ahead – you first have to develop a shared analysis. If you start building castles in the sky: ‘let’s create a party’, it’s the wrong end of the telescope.”
Many on the left have also championed the idea of a progressive alliance – between the likes of the Lib Dems, Labour, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru – to keep the Conservatives out of power. Clive Lewis, seen as a rising star within Labour, even suggested his party should pull out of the Richmond by-election to give the Lib Dems a better chance at beating the Conservatives.
Clegg did not directly address the issue but said: “You are going to have to have something, it can be a tacit understanding between non-Conservative parties that they are going to work together, or something much more full blown.
“One of my many flaws is that I have possibly been too unsentimental about party affiliations. For me it has always been relatively uncomplicated working with other parties. I’m a Liberal Democrat, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of my identity.”
That identity is certainly interesting. Having had a privileged and notably European upbringing, Clegg was privately educated before attending the University of Cambridge (and two others, in America and Europe). Following a prolific writing career, he became an MEP and then Lib Dem leader, just two years after winning his Sheffield Hallam seat. Descending from Tsarist Russian nobility on his father’s side, he believes his Dutch mother’s views – “formed in a Japanese prisoner of war camp” – were influential in shaping his outlook.
A father of three, he also freely admits he was not “a paragon on well-behaved virtue” – and caused some uproar in 2008 after admitting he had slept with “no more than 30” women.
“I am incredibly thankful that social media was not around when I was in my late teens and early 20s – I don’t think I’d make it off first base in politics now”, he smiles wryly.
Any particular incidents, I prod. “No. Certainly not any I’d want to share with you!” he shoots back.
He is a good storyteller – perhaps unsurprisingly, as an accomplished journalist – and one anecdote he does indulge is especially intriguing. Whilst on a school exchange in Munich in his late teens, he begins: “I behaved appallingly.”
“I got very drunk. A friend and I drifted out of the party and stole into a greenhouse, lit a match to find our way forward and saw a sort of Aladdin’s cave full of hairy, exotic cacti.
“I don’t know to this day whether it was by accident or design but the flame touched one of these cacti and sort of glowed, rather beautifully. So, we did that again, and again, and again.
“To my eternal shame,” he says, suddenly serious, “we ended up basically destroying one of Europe’s most complete, private collections of cacti, so it was not good. We were given a sort of community punishment. We had to dig up flower beds in the blazing sun in some municipal building in Munich. It was not my proudest moment.”
Looking forward, Clegg claims to be “in a take it step-by-step phase of my life.” Though he professes not to have made up his mind, you get the impression that unless something changes dramatically before 2020, he may well not stand.
He has just released a book, has his children and wife to think of and must know that politics can now take him no further than he has already been. That does bring advantages too: he can now afford to be outspoken. On Brexit he is livid, telling me Theresa May has “offered Parliament this ludicrous choice between a crap deal and no deal”.
Such interventions remain noteworthy, but are some way from the heady days of “I agree with Nick”. So whilst many still consider him a towering political figure, Clegg himself must know that the peak of his influence is behind him – making that relaxed Dad vibe all the more enticing.