Nobody has had a 2010 quite like Nick Clegg. He’s been up, down, but as Shortlist’s Andrew Dickens discovers, is far from out.
Walking up Whitehall on the kind of morning that makes you feel sorry for brass monkeys, I cast an eye over graffiti left by student protestors. Some of the spelling suggests not all of them need worry about the cost of going to university, but the message is clear.
Among the generic shouts of “Revolution” and “Tory scum”, one man bears the brunt of the ire for going back on his party’s promise to abolish tuition fees: Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, messiah-turned-Judas to many, and the man I’m off to see.
I interviewed Clegg in March, before the TV debates, before Cleggmania, when Wagner was still a German composer. Back then Clegg was the bold outsider. Eight months later he’s gone from third man to middle man. He’s the No2 of British politics, the subject of more effigies than Guy Fawkes would have been had he got sent off for England in a World Cup and a parent trying to hold together the Lib-Con family. In the reception of the Cabinet Office building, civil servants gather like a casting session for The Thick Of It and I wonder if the disabled toilet, which can be accessed without a security pass, is bomb-proof.
This is the business end of government and, upon opening the door of Clegg’s room, it becomes apparent that office size equates to size of task. Clegg, smiling, shakes my hand. Art adorns almost every surface, chosen (and in some cases created) by himself, reminding me that, alongside acting with Helena Bonham-Carter and road trips with Louis Theroux, being an art scholar is one of the many hues in his colourful past.
As we sit on a sofa to talk, Clegg nursing a tea in his ‘Deputy Prime Minister’ mug, I notice a change; he’s more cautious with his words. Is this greater responsibility coming with greater power? The spin machine? Or simply wisdom gained from a rollercoaster year?
In a few months you’ve gone from battling to be heard, to Cleggmania to effigies of you being hanged. How does that make you feel?
It makes me think that all you can do is not second guess the next day’s headlines or how people think from one day to the next and just ask yourself, given the difficult, conflicting choices you’ve got, if you’re making the best possible decision. It remains true, in politics like in life, that you’ve just got to do your best. Particularly in politics. You can’t keep everybody happy, you’ve just got to take decisions that you know will stand the test of time.
Do the personal attacks hurt?
Not in politics. I see these young people demonstrating and on one hand I think it’s good, in a sense, that people are feeling so engaged with something that they are making their voice heard. But I’m frustrated that the other side of the story isn’t being heard and I just hope over time, as they look at what it is we’re actually proposing, they’ll realise that it’ll actually be much cheaper to go to university, particularly for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Do you sympathise with the protesters?
Of course I understand these big headline figures will provoke a reaction. I just hope people will look beyond the headlines and realise that what we’re genuinely trying to do, in very difficult circumstances, is introduce a system that is a whole lot fairer than it is at the moment.
But in a way you’re happy to see them protesting?
I’m saying it doesn’t surprise me at all, given the kind of partial information that’s out there about our plans, that people feel really riled. And I don’t blame people for that at all.
A few verbal custard pies were thrown before the election; has David Cameron apologised?
We haven’t gone out of our way to apologise for what we’ve said in the past, we’ve just kind of shrugged our shoulders and said that’s then and now’s now.
Had a pint together yet?
No, we haven’t been out for a pint yet. We work very well together, but it’s a working partnership. We’re not looking to be lifelong friends. That’s not the idea. The idea is for two separate leaders of two separate parties to try to get things sorted.
Will you exchange Christmas cards?
[Laughs] Since I haven’t even decided what kind of Christmas card I’m going to send, it’s a bit premature to know that, but I think possibly we will.
And, in this age of austerity, will there be cuts in the Clegg household this Christmas?
I will do the normal routine of jumping on a Ryanair flight to spend Christmas with my in-laws in central Spain. We’ve done it ever since Miriam and I got married. In fact, all of our holidays are with my in-laws. There’s nothing wildly glamorous about it.
It’d be quite tough to explain to your kids why the present budget has had to be slashed...
Yeah. To be honest, my in-laws, like all Spanish families, are a vast family and so you have just a bevy of aunts, uncles and cousins who compete over who gives the flashiest present to the kids. So as a parent you can really make significant savings.
Do your children still believe in Father Christmas?
Yes. And Father Christmas does exist, in case they read this interview.
And do you find it easy to maintain that lie?
That Father Christmas exists? To be honest, I haven’t been challenged too much. I’ve been asked where he lives and I loosely say Lapland. That seems to suffice for the time being.
Are you worried that you could be labelled a liar?
By my children? I think they’ll grow out of it like I did and you did.
You’re assuming that…
I’m sorry. I’m making all sorts of assumptions.