Nick Clegg on the good, the bad, and the ugly of government

Nick Clegg’s rise to power was meteoric, if unexpected. After being a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for five years, he was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Sheffield Hallam in 2015. Within just two years he had been elected as leader of his political party, the Liberal Democrats. Little did he know then that he would soon find himself kingmaker in an unprecedented hung parliament, following the 2010 General Election. Nick went on to serve as Deputy Prime Minister under the Conservative leader David Cameron from 2010 to 2015, tasked not only with maintaining the integrity of an ideologically diverse coalition government, but also with keeping the UK intact in the face of a push for Scottish independence, and managing the UK’s large budget deficit and damaged banking system following the Financial Crash of 2008. As it happened, the Coalition survived until the next General Election, but Nick’s abrupt rise to the centre of British politics was to have an equally abrupt end. The 2015 General Election saw the Liberal Democrats haemorrhage votes and seats, eliminating them as a significant political force in British politics. Clegg resigned as Party leader, and ultimately lost his seat in the 2017 snap General Election to Labour’s Jared O’Mara.

I began by asking Nick if he had enjoyed his time as an MP: “Yes, of course. I enjoyed it enormously”. He told me he most enjoyed the time he spent helping his constituents. “All MPs say this, that they like helping Mrs. Miggins with her blocked drains and so on, but I genuinely did.” He went on to emphasis the importance of the “strong link” which exists in the British democratic system between MPs and their constituents. “I would reform pretty much all of British politics and all of our hopelessly creaking political institutions, but the one thing that I think we should cherish, because I believe that it really does set British parliamentary democracy apart from most other democracies, is this very strong link with quite a small community”.

Despite his enjoyment of his work, being an MP was not without its challenges. “At one point I was leader of the political party, I was an MP for Sheffield Hallam and I was Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government, and frankly, looking back on it, just one of those jobs was probably enough to be getting on with…So for five years or more I just didn’t sleep very much,” he added with a smile.   

He went on to say that he could not pretend that he liked working in Westminster itself: “I find it a bit too out of date, and anachronistic and moth-eaten and rat-infested…and, much more importantly, riddled with very, very old and peculiar conventions which, I think, makes it look out of step”. He said that there are certainly MPs who “love nothing more than just sitting on the green benches for hours upon hours. But that wasn’t my thing.”

When I asked if he had any particular regrets from his time in government, he did not hesitate to respond: “Yes, of course”. He said that going through the momentous and turbulent events that one does in government, one should not expect to always get it right. This led him to mention the U-turn on university tuition fees, whereby the Liberal Democrats scrapped their manifesto pledge to abolish tuition fees and supported a fee increase to £9,000 instead. At the time, the decision caused severe damage to the Party’s image and led to a fallout between the Party and the large student support base it had accrued. Somewhat surprisingly, Nick told me that this was not, in fact, the decision he regrets most. “I am always encouraged to say that I must regret the tuition fee decision the most. No, the thing I regret the most was the decision to take military action in Libya.” In 2011, a coalition including the UK and the USA launched a military intervention in Libya, mostly in the form of naval and airstrikes, which ended with the death of Muammar Gaddafi the same year. The country remains in a state of political turmoil. Nick told me that it was a mistake to take “action from the sky and imagine that you can somehow not also take ownership of what happens on the ground”.

He said that there are certainly MPs who “…love nothing more than just siting on the green benches for hours upon hours”

Despite these admissions, he seemed genuinely proud of the overall success of the coalition government, given the unprecedented political arrangement and the challenges faced in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis. Dealing with the effects of the Crisis “was a job which elicited controversial and highly unpopular decisions.” He includes the tuition fee U-turn among these. “But actually, the remarkable thing is that we provided stability and acted quite moderately when that was absolutely not the case in other places, in particular in Europe.”

Nick described his working relationship with David Cameron as an interesting one. “I think the reason it broadly worked was that by temperament we were both capable of working hard, taking decisions quickly and…we wouldn’t get too hot headed about things.” While he told me that they certainly came to issues from different ideological standpoints, he found that they were able to move beyond this: “we were constantly at loggerheads, but oddly enough it was a relatively pragmatic and straightforward political relationship because we knew we didn’t come at things from the same perspective”. Their political relationship certainly involved a great deal of compromise, but he told me, perhaps making another reference to the tuition fee U-turn, that the “history books will judge why David Cameron striking compromise was okay, but me striking compromise was the greatest betrayal since Judas Iscariot”.

During the Coalition years, and before her rise to the position of Prime Minister, Theresa May held the position of Home Secretary. I asked Nick about his relationship with her when she was a minister. While describing May as both “dutiful” and “hardworking”, he added that she is, in his view, a “fairly unimaginative politician”. “What was obvious to me working with her was not that she’s a bad person, but that there’s a certain rigidity and a lack of peripheral vision which, I think, has been revealed since she went into Number 10.” He went on to say that he suspects that history will conclude that she was better in her role as Home Secretary than as Prime Minister. I followed this up by asking whether he ever thought that she had the potential to be a future Prime Minister. He admits, “No, I didn’t readily identify her, but frankly I didn’t spend too much time worrying about who was going to succeed David Cameron. That was the Conservative Party’s problem.”

“the history books will judge why David Cameron striking compromise was okay but me striking compromise was the greatest betrayal since Judas Iscariot”

Before he rushed off to the Sheldonian to make an address, I asked Nick if he had any advice for students considering a career in politics. “Don’t do it too quickly,” he told me. He explained that he sees a real problem in British politics whereby young people leave university and immediately go into politics and build their entire career there. “That’s very unhealthy, in my view, because it leads to lots of people acting not because of what they think is really the best thing for the country or is right…they are so vested in the career of politics that they really won’t do anything that would risk them losing it.” He said that the acid test for a political career is that one must “feel, when you start your political career, that you can accept losing it. Then I think you’re ready.”

Nick Clegg is currently touring to promote his new book, How To Stop Brexit (And Make Britain Great Again).