In the second of our interviews with the party leaders, Stylist’s Lucy Foster meets Deputy PM and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg
I feel there’s something I should admit. I really like Nick Clegg. I just genuinely like him as a human being. I’ve only met him three times, but that was enough. I like what he says, I think he makes sense, I believe he’s a decent man and above all, I think his choice of life partner is excellent. (Anyone who’s impressed by Mr Clegg will be bowled over by Mrs C. She’s pretty spectacular).
But I understand this is probably at odds with the rest of the population. For this is the man who pledged to cut tuition fees then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000. It’s an astonishing volte-face by anyone’s standards and not likely to be forgotten anytime soon, by anyone, ever.
So, despite my own personal affiliations, as I rattle up to Sheffield on an overcast February morning to meet the Deputy PM in his constituency of Sheffield Hallam, I’m aware this could be his last few months as a politician of note. It could be the last time Liberal Democrats are in power for decades. Let’s be honest: for Nick Clegg and his party, the upcoming election could be an absolute disaster.
However, using his charisma to good effect (remember Cleggmania in 2010?), he’s riding a (small) crest of renewed popularity, having appeared on Channel 4’s The Last Leg in January where he threw a melon at the host and used a Nando’s metaphor to encourage young people to vote. Could it be that people might change their minds?
Sheffield Hallam is leafy, with homely red-brick terraces, and has excellent coffee shops that make large comforting lattes. It’s in one such cafe where I’m meeting Mr Clegg. This is confirmed by a reservation note on the table – “For Nick!” – where I sit and wait. It strikes me that if this constituency is planning to remove him from his seat come 7 May as the papers suggest, you’d think the locals would be less friendly. As he strolls in with just one PR, he doesn’t come across as a man contemplating life after politics.
So how are you planning to get women to vote for the Lib Dems in the next election?
By spelling out that a vote for the Lib Dems will help create the kind of society that I think a lot of people want. Namely one where we don’t saddle our kids with this generation’s debts but where we also spread opportunity for everybody to live the life they want. So what policies show that? Well, all the things we’ve done to ensure kids have got the best possible start in life, from better childcare aged two, through to the healthy meal they eat at lunchtime. Also, our belief is that parents can decide for themselves how they balance family with work through shared parental leave and tax-free childcare. Also, the issue of housing for the next generation; we will build 250 to 300,000 homes per year over the next several years to make sure that there are enough homes for the next generation. So I think our values are the values of a decent society, where everybody has a fair crack of the whip.
What do you think are going to be the biggest challenges for the next government?
If this Parliament was basically about rescuing the economy and making sure that we didn’t topple over like Greece, I think the central mission of the next Parliament should be a much more uplifting task. It’s about finishing the job and then showing there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and that we can do things differently and better again. That’s why I’m the only party leader to spell out when austerity will end [in 2017/ 2018]. The big difference is the Tories have said that even when the deficit is ended, they want to carry on with the same approach with cutting. In other words, they want to see the same amount of money going into public services. But I don’t think anybody wants austerity forever.
Hasn’t Greece shown that people will only take so much?
Yes, of course, and with good reason. And by the way, when we came to power, our deficit was only slightly less than Greece’s and however many brickbats and criticisms might come my way, I will, for as long as I live, be incredibly proud that my party played a role in pulling this country back from the brink. But all I’m saying to people is that we’ve got two or three years to go, a few more years of difficult decisions and we need to ask the very wealthy to pay a little bit extra to finish that job. Then we can start investing in public services again in line with the growth of the economy.
There’s talk there might be a triple coalition post-election…
[He rolls his eyes] Just imagine.
What advice would you offer these parties?
What do you need to be aware of with regards to compromises and managing voters’ expectations? Oh my God, that’s a good question. I thought I had most questions but this is a left field one. Erm, say that again, says he, desperately trying to buy time to think of a good answer.
[I repeat the question.] I’m thinking of tuition fees here…
Erm, yes. I just think you’ve got to be quite open about the fact that if no-one has won an outright majority, no-one has the right to do everything they want. And I guess that’s why it’s really important to spell out what your priorities are, which is why I attach so much importance to the front page of our manifesto – the things I will really fight for.
Look what our 2010 manifesto had on the front page. Deliver the pupil premium [funding to help disadvantaged pupils]. Done. Deliver £10,000 tax-free personal allowance. More than delivered that, it’s going to be up to £10,600 in April. Fix the economy; I think we’ve done pretty well on that. So I’m not trying to duck the fact that a policy on page 36 that we weren’t able to deliver is the one that a lot of people remind me of. But I have been absolutely religious at trying to deliver our priorities for the British people.
And while we’re on tuition fees, one of the things I’ll be saying over and over until 7 May is firstly, it’s the fairest deal I could get. Labour introduced fees and hiked them up, and the Tories wanted them to go up even further. And it’s proved to be much fairer than everyone predicted at the time.
But you have to see it from the voters’ point of view. It was a broken promise. People think politicians are liars.
Yes. I accept that’s what people think and, listen, I’m not daft. I hear and read what people say about me. All I’m saying is, we have to overcome this culture that says if a party, which hasn’t won a majority, is unable to do everything in their manifesto, somehow they’re liars. I like to call it something a bit more old-fashioned: it’s democracy. I’ve discovered there are two kinds of people on this issue. There are people who accept that compromise is compromise and there are others who brand every compromise as a betrayal. If we do the latter, we will never make progress as a country in the plural politics that we now inhabit.
All the polls are saying that you’re not going to keep your seat. What do you say to that?
They’re wrong. I know I’m going to keep my seat.
Are you sure?
Look, you’ll find some people who won’t vote for me, and lots of people I hope who will. I’ve been MP for south west Sheffield for 10 years now. I’m going to go out later this afternoon knocking on doors and I’m not complacent, I’m really confident. I don’t think elections should be coronations, they should be contests. And I don’t want to sound pugnacious, but I like a bit of a battle.
OK, so 12.2% of your party is female. Our readers are concerned about female representation. What are you going to do about that?
The main thing is to make sure that where Lib Dem MPs are standing down, we have a good chance of having a female MP. I’m not actually in favour of quotas, not yet. I admit that we as a party are clearly too male. We’re in a last chance saloon now and I’d like to fix it by putting a lot of money, support, mentoring and training behind women to give them the chance to become successful candidates. The majority of MPs who have stood down are being replaced by candidates who are women, or from under-represented groups. I’ve personally come to the view that if this doesn’t work, I think we might then try for a temporary period of time something harder and tougher – maybe quotas.
What about making Parliament more attractive for women?
I actually feel quite strongly about this [starts ranting]. It is a ludicrous place to work for any normal human who doesn’t think we still live in 1873. Westminster is not fit for purpose. It’s a farce. Until recently, it had a shooting gallery but didn’t have a crèche. Get your head around that.
It’s not just about women, it’s about anyone who is vaguely normal and believes in loving their family and not just sacrificing everything on the altar of late-night binge drinking in Westminster bars. We should all unite to scrap this clapped-out, 19th-century parliamentary culture, which is just awful.
You’re the only party who’s going to provide the £8 billion, suggested by the NHS to match the funding gap.
This isn’t just about the money. It is money and change. My personal priority is to put mental health on the same pedestal as physical health. A GP friend of mine tells me she has lots of patients with physical problems which have a mental health origin. Our plans are for half a billion pounds every year of investment in mental health, introducing waiting time standards, a massive push on eating disorders, and generally just lifting the lid on this taboo of mental health. It’s not going to happen overnight but over a couple of parliaments, we’ll have a healthier, more contented country.
How are we going to make workplaces more flexible?
On the employer’s side, they need to make flexibility the norm, not the exception. It’s a requirement now that all employees can demand flexible working from their employers. And obviously, there’s the new shared parental leave. My own hunch is whoever’s in power next, if they really are serious about this, they need to go a step further. The evidence is that men are still quite reluctant to take up this entitlement. So we need to follow other countries such as Sweden and introduce the ‘use it or lose it’ approach to paternal leave. That’s what I’d do.
We then go on to the gender pay gap which, taking the Coalition line, Mr Clegg cites at 9.4%. But he’s still pushing for more: “We’ve got to do more to force the pace, particularly in larger companies to make sure women and men are paid the same. I don’t just want a million more women in work, I want to make sure that when they’re in work, they’re paid properly.”
It’s worth noting that since this interview took place in February, the Lib Dems have pushed through a law so it is now mandatory for companies with more than 250 employees to publish their pay scales.
So let’s talk houses. If people have £44k of student debt, where do they find that £50k to put down a deposit?
So the first thing to say is the money that you repay for your student loan has no bearing at all on whether you can take out a mortgage. I mean, basically what we’ve introduced is a graduate tax. It’s paying a bit more tax to pay off your student loan, depending on your earnings. Why the hell didn’t we call it graduate tax? [Facepalms]
I was going to ask you what’s your biggest regret...
[Laughs] Well, there you go, but back to the housing market. First thing, build more and build where people want to live. Secondly, let local authorities off the leash more, the Treasury just needs to unclench. They are just so, [makes uptight face] about how local authorities spend money. Thirdly, I think we could do a lot more with the shared ownership approach so we can find a way for tenants to build up a stake in the property they’re renting.
Some people say you’re a great media performer, yet others say you’re just a conman. What are we supposed to believe?
Well, you can judge that. I’m too English to talk about myself in these terms. But you know what? I hope people will judge me on my actions and not just my words and I get that there are some people who will never forget the things that I couldn’t do.
Do you think you’re funnier than Cameron and Miliband?
Do I think I’m funnier? [Laughs] I can’t answer questions like that! Put it this way, can I imagine David Miliband or… oh, sorry, I called him David Miliband, I mean Ed Miliband. I can’t imagine him chucking a melon on TV. And I’m not saying chucking a melon at anyone, by the way, is a funny thing to.
The quick questions
All the things you didn’t need to know about the Deputy PM
Who would you rather go head-to-head with in PMQs: Piers Morgan or Jeremy Paxman?
I’d probably want to have a go at Piers Morgan I think. I’ve got some scores to settle with that man.
If you were stuck in a lift for three hours with either Obama, Putin or Merkel, who would you prefer?
I’d say Merkel.
But you could change Russia’s foreign policy in those three hours.
I don’t think Putin wants to listen to anybody at the moment. [Laughs] And I’ve spoken to all of them but I think she’s a really unusual woman.
And you speak German.
Would you give up your seat if you could guarantee a 100% turn out?
Can I have both, please?
No, you can’t.
Yes, so I can have both.
If you were at Nando’s, what would you order?
[Laughs] I was there two weeks ago, I actually ordered the avocado chicken salad or something like that. They have quite good salads, but my kids were tucking into their bottles of normal, hot, very hot, very, very, very hot [Peri Peri sauce], and my 10-year-old literally had every single bottle around his plate and by the end, it was just like a soup of insufferably hot Peri Peri.
Did he dip his chips in it?
He did. Needless to say, when we got home, I had to give him another meal.
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