NICK Clegg has recently moved to Scotland – the bit that remains in Whitehall, that is. After becoming Deputy Prime Minister in 2010, he moved into nice digs in the Cabinet Office.
Then, he notes, “it was discovered that I was merrily breathing in great gulps of asbestos and they had to seal off the whole area”.
The only available alternative was Dover House, the beautiful Grade I listed building which overlooks Horse-guards Parade – and also home to the Scottish Secretary. How is the new Scottish squat? “I’m a very grateful occupant,” he declares of his new mansion.
Not content with taking up residence in Scotland, Clegg has this weekend brought along his entire party as well. For the first time since devolution, one of the UK parties is in Scotland for its main conference event.
Glasgow’s SECC was chosen, he says, because it is a “brilliant conference venue”, because of the high number of Scots MPs he represents (20 per cent of the total), and because of a certain referendum taking place a year this week. It marks a year since Clegg’s much-mocked and much- manipulated “Sorry” video in which he apologised for the party’s pre-election assurances on tuition fees.
But this year, there are no apologies. Instead, Clegg sounds bolder – and with reason. Commentators in the London press have been outing themselves as Cleggophiles, praising the way he has kept the party together. The economic news is getting better. And so far the only person to have disrupted the calm has been the party’s official malcontent, the peer Lord Oakeshott, who attacked Clegg’s leadership late last week. “It’s a bit like the foul weather. He always pops up. He does it every year and he did it to my predecessor as well. It’s just one of these things,” Clegg responds.
So has saying sorry made a difference? Are the Lib Dems forgiven? “Clearly our poll rating is still not great but I think there has been a bit of a change,” he responds. “There’s more begrudging respect now, even from our critics, that we have stuck with it.” Had the Lib Dems not stayed the course, he argues “the economy would not now be starting to turn a corner. I think it is no exaggeration to say that if it wasn’t for the Liberal Democrats you wouldn’t now be getting this fairly steady stream of good economic news.”
Having taken so much heat, how does it feel to get some praise for once? Some have argued he would be justified in feeling a spot of schadenfreude over the bother David Cameron and Ed Miliband are in. “Life is too short for schadenfreude,” he says. He says he accepted early that the party would get pelters for getting into bed with the Conservatives.
“That is fine in politics but I don’t think it has been nice for the party. I am just immensely proud and grateful to my colleagues that we have stuck with it. To that extent we are emerging battle hardened, but a lot stronger… I hope over the next 18 months that people will begin to appreciate that in larger numbers.”
The time-frame is relevant, as Clegg has an election coming his way. This week’s conference is where the first signs of the party’s offer to people in 2015 will be crafted. Clegg is aiming to take the party to what he calls “the liberal centre” – as distinct from the left. It will be symbolised in a major debate on the economy tomorrow. There are plenty of areas where he disagrees with the Conservatives, he says; for example, he is “frustrated” by Tory “reluctance” to build more affordable homes. But what he describes as “the goalposts” planted by the coalition on the macro-economy should remain “where we stuck them”. Amid anger about controversial policies such as the so-called bedroom tax and other welfare cutbacks, conference tomorrow will decide whether they want their jerseys somewhere else.
And post-election, he is clearly keen to stay put – in government. He accepts that the rationale for this coalition – that of stability at a time of crisis – will be less pressing in 2015 (if economic recovery persists).
But if the country returns another hung parliament, with the Lib Dems once again in the position of kingmaker, he frames the choice thus: “Do we just retreat to our corners and start hurling insults at each other, or do we think it is important to give people the chance to have a government that can govern and make decisions?” And what has changed, he adds, is that the fear factor around coalition government has gone.
The question then is with whom? In the wake of the Syria vote, when Miliband enraged Cameron over his parliamentary tactics, Lib Dem sources are suggesting that Miliband cannot be trusted. Clegg says he can’t see why Miliband put forward his own motion on the vital vote three weeks ago. “I was disappointed that for some reason they decided to table a motion which pretty much said exactly the same things that we had agreed to. We ended up then in this rather unseemly set of votes where people were picking different motions which said the same thing. I didn’t feel that was dealing with the gravity of the issue that it merited.”
So would he ever try and do business with Miliband again? “Listen, I can get on perfectly well with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband. We’re roughly the same age. I have no personal animus towards them. I don’t hold personal grudges to politicians in general. And decisions about whether Liberal Democrats would enter into coalition in the future have nothing to do with my personal dislikes or likes.”
However he hit out at his Tory coalition partners at an opening rally of his party’s conference in Glasgow last night, branding them the “party of fire at will” and describing as “bizarre” a plan by the Conservatives to allow firms to let go of staff without employment rights. He also told delegates Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls should follow his example at conference last year and say “sorry” to British voters. He said they should apologise for “schmoozing” with bankers and “not balancing the books in the good times”.
On the issue military action against Syria itself, Clegg remains a supporter. “When a war crime is committed there is a principled case for us to participate,” he insists. “I think when a war crime is committed, sometimes actually what the British people want, even if they don’t agree with you, is to do what you think is the right thing to do.”
Which sounds fine, but if they still don’t agree with Clegg in little over 18 months time, the party will be reeling. He goes back to that career- defining decision three years ago, to walk into Downing Street. “You have to be responsible for the consequences of your actions. We [the party] all collectively decided rightly for the sake of the country to rescue and repair and reform the British economy to go into coalition with the Conservatives,” he says. “Is that easy, no; have we lost support, yes; has it involved taking a hit, yes. But is it the right thing for the country in the long run? Definitely. And is it the right thing for the Liberal Democrats in the long run, definitely.”