Tom Ellen meets Deputy PM Nick Clegg, and finds a man trying to re-establish the old “I agree with Nick” magic
“Who says men can’t multitask?” grins Nick Clegg, somehow managing to smile for the ShortList photographer, digest a text message and pour me a glass of water in one movement. And, to be fair, if there was ever a man who needed ‘multitasking’ in his arsenal, it’s Clegg. Since his appointment to deputy prime minister in 2010, the 47-year-old has been juggling co-running the country, bringing up three boys and, more recently, waging a one-man war against Ukip and anchoring a radio show on London’s LBC. “As long as you don’t need a huge amount of sleep – which I don’t – you can make it work,” he laughs.
I’m visiting Clegg at his Whitehall office in the wake of his televised debates with Nigel Farage, and in the run-up to the European elections on 22 May.
His offices are what you’d expect if you’ve ever seen The Thick Of It – grand, high-ceilinged rooms that look like they should house banquet tables, but actually harbour open-plan desks and flickering PCs. In person, Clegg is easygoing and likable, but not everyone in the UK currently sees him that way. The glory of ‘Cleggmania’ and the pre-election debates in 2010 – in which “I agree with Nick” became the unofficial motto of both David Cameron and Gordon Brown – changed to seething resentment months later, with the Lib Dems’ perceived U-turn on tuition fees.
Clegg, you often feel, has been battling that backlash ever since. It’s certainly at the heart of Labour’s new political broadcast – which depicts the Deputy PM as the ‘Un-Credible Shrinking Man’, a stammering patsy, nodding along to the idea that “being £30,000 in debt is an excellent invective for a life of jolly hard work”.
But anyone assuming Clegg’s belly is without fire is way off the mark. As I discover during our chat, he’s fiercely positive about everything from the legacy of the coalition and Britain’s place in the EU, to feminism and the size of a modern man’s ‘cojones’…
Let’s talk firstly about your recent debates with Nigel Farage. Do you see Ukip as a genuinely dangerous party?
I know I’m widely deemed to have come out worse in those debates, but the reason I challenged [Farage] is that I’ve always taken Ukip seriously. David Cameron and Ed Miliband hope they can turn the other way and the issue will disappear – that’s a woeful failure of political leadership. I’m in favour of Europe, not because I love Brussels, but because I love Britain, and Farage is trading on a sense of despair about modern Britain that I don’t share. Populism is stalking Europe. I was in Austria the other day and there were posters for these eerily Farage-looking Austrian politicians beaming down, with the slogan “We understand your fury”. It’s the same thing in France with Le Pen, in Holland with Wilders; they’re all drawing on a profound sense of fear people have about the speed of change in the modern world. So I think the views that populism represent are genuinely dangerous. I can’t think of a worse antidote to fear than increasing job insecurity, and if you did what Nigel Farage is advocating [leaving the EU], you would make that fear and insecurity worse.
How much of Ukip’s success do you attribute to Farage’s image as the ‘ordinary bloke’ in the pub with his pint and his Rothmans?
The idea that he’s this ‘alternative’ politician is totally synthetic. He’s much more of a ‘politician’ than most politicians I know. He’s been a jobbing Conservative candidate since he was knee high to a grasshopper. He and I joined the European parliament on the same day, and he’s still there now. So, he will be found out at some point.
We want to talk to you about the new paternity leave laws you’re proposing. What’s the idea?
Very simply to allow mums and dads to make up their own minds about the time they take off. The current rule is so patronising – to give dads just two weeks, usually at a time when the baby’s barely aware of their existence.
Your wife Miriam said recently that men who look after their kids have “cojones”. But how do we overcome the stigma that childcare is somehow ‘unmanly’?
We should encourage young dads to rejoice in their fatherhood, and not think it’s an embarrassing add-on. Those old-fashioned attitudes that say it’s unmanly to care for your kids are absurd. It’s as silly to say it’s unmanly to care as it is to say it’s unwomanly to work.
Do you indeed have “cojones”?
[Laughs] There is some evidence that I may have, yes.
You do your fair share around the house?
I’m not going to pretend I’m a great cook. Miriam will have my guts for garters if I claim otherwise.
Do you have one signature dish?
I… Look, honestly, I’m a very poor cook [laughs]. But I’m very involved in getting the kids up in the morning, getting them breakfast, walking them to school.
Do you think the public perceive this coalition government as a success?
Given the almost hysterical cynicism that greeted this coalition – I’ve lost count of the number of portentous articles saying it will all end next Tuesday – we’re actually seeing it through. And the history books will look back and say that if we had not done that, we wouldn’t be recovering from what was the biggest cardiac arrest on our economy since the oil shock in the Seventies. We’ve shown coalition can work, which is good because I think it’ll happen again, whether it’s next election or the one after, as the old, tribal blocks of class-based support for each party are dissolving.
Did you feel the backlash against you in 2010 over tuition fees was unfair?
It’s not for me to say. I mean… I think about this a lot. It’s an inescapable fact that if you don’t win a majority, you have to compromise. The bit I don’t get is that some people describe every compromise as a betrayal. The Conservatives have had to compromise, too – we’ve massively reined them in. Tax cuts for multimillionaires – this would have happened if we had not been in coalition. There are currently some Conservatives who want to impose an obligatory prison sentence on anyone who’s committed a previous offence possessing a knife for the second time – not committing another offence, just possessing the knife. So you’ve got your penknife in your pocket, and… I disagree with that. [It’s a] policy that would probably see the prison population go up, and put a lot of youngsters on a conveyor belt from being today’s young offenders to tomorrow’s hardened criminals. And the Lib Dems are saying, “We’re not going to do that.” So what you see is that untested prejudices are tested in a coalition government. But if you haven’t won an election [outright], it’s not democratic to assume you can do everything you want. I have to deal with the world the way it is, not the way I’d like it to be. I’d like to be prime minister, but I’m not.
Last time we interviewed you, in 2010, you said you hadn’t been for a pint with David Cameron yet. Has that now changed?
We haven’t had a pint. Obviously we’ve spent a fair amount of time together. We’re tough on each other when we need to be, but remain civil.
Do you still play tennis together?
We haven’t for a long, long while. I think he claimed he was a bit out of action [laughs].
Who won last time you played?
I will quote the prime minister himself, who was gracious enough to say he narrowly beat me, but it wasn’t necessarily because of his superior tennis technique. He was more wily and consistent.
Aside from tennis, what else do you do to switch off?
I always read at night. It’s like a firewall between the day and going to sleep. Right now, I’m reading The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I like the South African writer JM Coetzee, and Samuel Beckett, too. Being taken somewhere else by great writing is a brilliant way to switch off.
Do you always read novels?
Always a novel. I can’t bear the idea of reading politicians’ autobiographies. I’m bemused by people who work in politics and read the self-congratulatory memoirs of politicians. That said, I’ll now probably end up writing one, which will be dismissed in equal measure.
You wrote a novel when you were younger, right?
I wrote a novel that will never, ever see the light of day [laughs]. I found it recently. It is such cringingly, toe-curlingly, puce-embarrassingly, pretentious adolescent tripe. I’d just read The Autumn Of The Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez, which has no punctuation, so I went pure no-punctuation as well. It was about the tortured memories of an old man. I just don’t think that’s the right subject for an anguished teenager to write about.
How much attention do you pay to things like Private Eye and The Thick Of It that send up politicians? The last series of The Thick Of It dubbed the Lib Dem-based party ‘The Inbetweeners’…
[Laughs] I don’t read Private Eye or watch The Thick Of It, but when I’ve seen funny mockery of the Lib Dems, I laugh, just as I hope Tory or Labour politicians do at mockery of them. Actually, Labour politicians don’t have much of a sense of humour. But you’ve got to be thick-skinned.
Where do you stand on the idea, first mooted last year by Diane Abbott, that the modern British man is ‘in crisis’?
I think the traditional, macho, tub-thumping man who’s the sole breadwinner, who’s uneasy about same-sex relationships, who thinks you can’t have hairs on your chest and care for your children – he’s in crisis, and thank God. It’s wonderful how chilled out young men are now about the fact you can be a football fan one moment, and a cook the next. You can weep at your child’s nativity play, and still be a hard-arsed trader. That’s a more well-rounded understanding of what it is to be a modern man.
Finally, what did you make of Russell Brand’s recent comments, encouraging people not to vote?
There are always people who say, “Everything’s pants, all politicians are the same, don’t vote, let’s have a revolution.” I understand the emotion sometimes, I share their frustration. But the idea that you can achieve something with a message of despair… it’s self-defeating. It would be incomprehensible to the people in the past that fought for our right to vote. Dare I say it, I’ve done a lot more than Russell Brand to try to change politics.
So, you’d happily debate Russell?
No doubt he’d make mincemeat of me, so I won’t be rushing to do that [laughs].
(Images: Nick Clegg photographed by David Venni @ RED REPRESENTS; Stock: PA)