Not many things can tear me away from a weekend of sporting action on the tellybox but when I was asked if I wanted to interview Nick Clegg my diary suddenly became very clear. 58 hours later I found myself in a nice suite up at the ICC in Birmingham where the Lib Dem Conference was being held. Plenty of people wearing a suit or a shirt and tie or at least a shirt and then me. In the photo below I don’t think I’ll actually be that hard to spot. Looking back it feels as though they’ve let through some ruffian through and he was so stealthy no-one noticed until it was too late.
We were there to interview the most powerful Liberal Democrat of all time. Having been formed in 1988 the party had never seen a sniff of government but despite what most observers believed was a poor result in May of 2010 the party finally had some influence. It’s leader a man whose rise to prominence caught many both in the party and the media off guard. The Lib Dems were planning on making Vince Cable as much of a face for the campaign in 2010 as Nick Clegg but that first TV performance at the debates coupled along with the rise in the polls that caught almost everyone off guard and Nick Clegg was firmly the horse the party was riding – either to success or to failure.
I arrive with fellow Blog of the Year candidate Matthew Gibson to see the winner Nick Thornsby and Lib Dem Voice co-editor and Liberal Democrat Internal Communications Manager Helen Duffett already waiting in the suite. We were a few minutes early and a glass of water was poured all around and I take some sips and compose myself. Suddenly in walks the Deputy Prime Minister and handshakes all round. The first thing you notice about him is that he is full of vigour and seems in an extremely chipper mood. He pours himself a glass of water but I don’t think he touched it after that. We await the Best New Blogger Richard Morris who arrives on time and we start after a series of bad puns about Richard’s BOTY award.
Nick asks how long we have and is informed 40 minutes and says ‘Great’ and we start. Nick Thornsby goes first but within moments the mobile phone of the DPM goes and he looks quizzically at it and asks if it is ok to answer. It clearly is and he does so only to find out that it is his wife ringing on a different number to usual. After he hangs up he looks at the phone quizzically and inputs that new number for his wife into his phone. We all kid that this is the type of story the Daily Mail would love and we carry on.
I know I have a couple of topics that I want to cover and I get them in during the forty minute session. One of those is whether he ever asks himself if all the vitriol he gets is worth it. He is a man so vilified by not only the media but by so many of the electorate. He is steely in his response and slightly dismissive like it was an obvious answer. He replies ‘undoubtedly yes’ and starts talking about the fact that he never reads the papers any more as he knows it is most likely not going be paint him in a good light. He says that as long as you know why you are doing something then you don’t question yourself. His inner belief in the coalition is clear and the man sitting a few feet in front of me is certainly no shrinking violet or puppy dog to David Cameron. Anyone who spends even a few minutes talking to Nick Clegg would straight away dismiss the notion that he is Cameron’s lackey.
I continue and ask him why he carries on. I know personally I would find it hard to be so disliked by so many people even if I believed I was doing the right thing. He says ‘I think it’s worth it’ but when I bring up his family as a reason for jacking it all in it becomes apparent that this isn’t some power-crazed monster that some have portrayed him of being. He speaks with pure love and dedication about his boys. Without saying it outright I think it is clear that whatever happens and whatever his feelings are for the country as a whole he would never do anything that would jeopardise the quality of life or the future of his sons. He doesn’t worry about his wife as she can ‘look after herself’ but he does everything within his power to shield his kids from the public spotlight.
Two year-old Miguel doesn’t really know about his father’s day job but nine year-old Antonio and Alberto aged seven certainly do. However they unsurprisingly care far more about the Wolves v QPR match and going for a kick-about than they do what everyone is saying about their dad. In a world were some politicians will sell out their family to look good I find it most admirable that Nick Clegg will do anything but. He is not a believer in God but his wife is and the kids are raised Catholic like their mother. This has been played out in certain newspapers as a big deal but it is not. Clegg’s love and devotion to both his wife and sons simply shines through. The whole of the interview he is talking with passion and enthusiasm but for the brief minute or so his kids came up in conversation he changed, sat back in his chair and spoke with his heart instead of his head.
Earlier I had asked him about whether he had betrayed the electorate and when was he going to apologise for doing so. I noted that if you have a fight with your wife you don’t just buy her some flowers and take her out for a nice meal, you say sorry and the healing process can begin. He breaks down the answer into two. Firstly he doesn’t feel as though he has betrayed anyone by forming a coalition with the Conservative Party. He is clear and adamant on this. He believes that by forming the coalition he not only secured a more liberal government implementing more of the Liberal Democrat manifesto than I think anyone expected but he also kept the banking crisis from becoming a total crash. The markets were on the brink and any form of minority government could and probably would have been enough to send the markets over the edge.
On the other side of betrayal though he knows he has made a mistake that is deep and cutting. ‘I think about saying sorry every day’ says the Deputy Prime Minister about signing the tuition fees pledge. ‘I am a human being’ he pleads, ‘blood pumps around my body’. It is something that is still clearly haunting him and is something that will continue to do until he gets that outright apology off of his chest. The question is can he live with that gnawing away at him from now until the end of time or will the guilt overwhelm him and force him into an apology?
He doesn’t think he can openly say sorry because people will retort ‘well you were in Government so you could not have done it’ and that it would do no good. I got the sense that he deep down wanted to apologise but either he thinks – or his advisers think – that is just wouldn’t be credible. The signing of the NUS tuitions fees pledge was by far the worst decision the party has ever made under Nick Clegg’s leadership. It put the party in a position where if they formed a coalition – which was always looking likely – they would either make the tuition fees a draw a line in the sand issue or they would have to go against the pledge that they signed.
With the way the economy was on the brink there were bigger stakes at play that scraping of tuition fees and Clegg had little option but to take the flak that came his way on this. Not only flak but personal taunts and his reputation sinking to the level reserved for those who so reviled that walking down the street without an obscene remark being hurled was something to rejoice. For a long time he has been seen as toxic not only by the opposition and the media but also by the rank and file members of his own party. A large chunk of these people blame him for not doing better in 2010 and certainly for the downturn in their fortunes politically. They feel embarrassed when they go out on the doorstep canvassing. The DPM concedes that the party are now not the loveable idealists that used to at worse face ‘a look of indifference’ at the doorstep. Now many despise the party for what they perceive as acts of betrayal to students and families. Being a Lib Dem is not easy but he does believe the situation is recoverable. If he didn’t then he wouldn’t still be doing what he is doing.
He openly says that there are ‘lots of things we are doing I would rather we weren’t’ and that ‘it’s been bad’ when asked about the reaction on the doorstep in the past sixteen months or so. He firmly believes though that once the activists stop licking their wounds and go out there proud to be a Lib Dem and not just embarrassed then things can and will turn around, ‘Face-to-Face action works’ he says with an added verve of determination.
Our time comes to an end and we have a group photo and shake hands and we wander out into the corridor and gossip. We all sense it went well but none of the traps anyone set for him were sprung. I came away with not only a sense but an deep grasp and understanding that he was the right man to lead this party at this time and for the foreseeable future.
Whilst we are from extremely different backgrounds our grasp of what is right and wrong are eerily similar. Our politics could only be split by hairs. He thinks that everyone deserves the same opportunities in life and that starts with education. It shouldn’t matter if mummy or daddy are wealthy or whether they are from a council estate and don’t know either of their birth parents and are being brought up in care. Everyone deserves the same chance at life.
Nick Clegg has everything you need to have to be one of the greatest voices for liberals ever seen around the globe. He has a sense of drive, passion and commitment like no other person I have ever come across in any form of life. He firmly believes with everything he has that he is doing the right thing. Not only that but he also has a family that he deeply loves and supports him. They keep him grounded and the fact he walks his kids to school and plays with them in the back garden I think is something we should all applaud. He is a man with so much on his plate that Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi together couldn’t eat it all. Yet he remains upbeat and determined to carry on making things fairer for all even if it means pain for him personally.
The media will not break him and I got the sense that he’d stand in the stocks for an hour every day on the village green having rotten fruit chucked at him if it led to a fairer society. I think it is fair to say that I had high hopes for meeting him and he may have even exceeded them. He can be a true great when all is said and done but I do genuinely believe that at some point he needs to say sorry and allow the healing process to start. Everyone can forgive and when you get them to understand why you couldn’t make tuition fees the draw a line in the sand topic then they will forgive.
My biggest fear is that by not apologising for one catastrophic mistake that he will not be able to continue his good work beyond 2015 because if he’s unable to lead the Lib Dems to victory or into a coalition in 2015 then the country will be poorer for it – and that my friends is not something that we want to happen.
All Photos courtesy and copyright of Helen Duffett