Nick Clegg: Rebel with a cause to clean up Parliament

Fresh from his successful gamble in calling for the Speaker to stand down, the Liberal Democrat leader sees himself as an anti-Establishment figure. But can a Cambridge-educated ex-public schoolboy be the James Dean of the Commons? Jane Merrick meets Nick Clegg
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The Independent Online

As the expenses scandal washes around Westminster, Nick Clegg is trying to distinguish the expense claims of members of his own party from the worst excesses of Labour and Conservative MPs. No Liberal Democrat has yet to come unstuck over a duck island or a moat, and he says his party's misdemeanours are more "laughable and ridiculous" than "crooked and fraudulent".

"That might well change, as more things come to light," says Clegg. "So far, I haven't seen any evidence of a colleague who's done something anywhere near the equivalent to the systemic sort of 'flipping' and abuse and fictional mortgage payments that have been received in other parties."

That was Thursday morning, shortly after 9.30am. Two hours later, Clegg's chief election strategist, Lord Rennard, stood down for "health and family reasons". The party insists his departure has nothing to do with the £40,000 he claimed for a holiday home he owns, despite living two miles from Westminster, and so, they say, the Lib Dem leader's words still stand.

Yet Lord Rennard's downfall mars what had been a good week for Clegg. He had taken the huge gamble of becoming the first leader of a political party to call for the Speaker to stand down, in what marked the turning point for Michael Martin. By Monday evening, Gordon Brown had made clear he was withdrawing support, and David Cameron was also indicating that he could not rally his MPs to back Martin. By Tuesday, the Speaker had resigned. Clegg describes his intervention as "a catalyst", even if it was not the only one.

On Thursday morning, the Prime Minister performed a U-turn on settlement rights for Gurkhas, a campaign which, with Joanna Lumley, the Lib Dem leader had spearheaded in the Commons.

Let's not be under any illusions: Clegg, 42, attended fee-paying Westminster School, followed by Cambridge University. His Spanish wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, is a partner in an international law firm. Clegg is often compared to Cameron – they look similar, they share privileged backgrounds, and even share a professed enthusiasm for civil liberties and the environment.

But the Lib Dem leader frequently breaks into his own sentences with scathing remarks about his Tory counterpart. Cameron is a "joker" by pushing ahead with a Eurosceptic policy and believes in nothing "other than a sense of entitlement that he should run this country".

In the 4 June European and council elections, the minor parties are expected to benefit from the expenses scandal, while the Lib Dems appear to be stuck in the late teens in the polls. "Of course there is the mood to give every single politician in a suit a good kicking, particularly if they are going to set foot in Westminster."

Yet the Lib Dems' position is still disappointing, and they continue to struggle to be heard in the gap between Labour and the Tories and the minor parties – which helps explain why Clegg can make gambles such as demanding the Speaker's head.

Like Cameron, he wants an immediate general election, but he says of the Tories: "I cannot imagine what would be more disappointing to the British public than to find in the next few years all we've done is trade one shop-soiled government run by an Establishment party for another."

He portrays himself as the anti-Establishment, "influence and reform" party leader, claiming: "I will break Westminster rules." Unlike Labour and the Tories, he says, he is not part of the "rotten" Establishment that has fostered a "eunuch Parliament". But, unlike Ukip, the Greens and the BNP, the Lib Dems, as the third party, can be influential by having one foot inside that Parliament, he says.

In these recessionary times, the Lib Dem leader and his advisers are crammed into their standard-class seats on the King's Cross to Durham train. Clegg insists he never travels first class, unlike other party leaders.

But what about the Lib Dems, are they really hair-shirt and sandals? "I would say most of the revelations are concentrated at the laughable, unwise and ridiculous end of things, but that doesn't absolve anyone from any mistakes that they have made."

The most notable of those included Chris Huhne's mahogany trouser press and Sir Menzies Campbell's £10,000 makeover for his Westminster flat. The Lib Dem leader's own error was to charge to the taxpayer £82 of international telephone calls to friends and family in Colombia and Vietnam. He says: "I put my hands up, I made a mistake."

MPs from all parties who are proved to have committed serious wrongdoing should be subject to a recall committee of their constituents, which could trigger a by-election, he suggests. "It is shocking how far we have fallen in the pecking order of the parliamentary league table. Part of that problem is because we have all indulged in this kind of self-congratulatory myth that Westminster is the mother of all parliaments. It can regulate itself, it can make up its own rules, it can be judge and jury."

Clegg wants an urgent meeting between the three leaders on party funding. "We need to use this as a once-in-a-generation chance to clean politics up from top to toe."

On Wednesday, Clegg had struggled to be heard during Prime Minister's Questions because the Speaker, in apparent revenge, allowed barracking from Labour MPs to continue for a little too long. "I'm sure it was inadvertent," says Clegg, a little sarcastically. But he does not regret calling for the Speaker to go. "I actually like him, [but] he was a Speaker who was completely bypassed by events, who represented an older world, and we needed someone to be a champion of the new world. We really need to take charge of this place, get it by the scruff of the neck, turn it upside down and, I am sorry ... we wouldn't have had that moment of renewal if I hadn't brought it to a head."

Two senior Lib Dems, Sir Menzies and Sir Alan Beith, are in the running for the Speakership. So who does Clegg want to be the party's candidate? "I don't think there should be a Lib Dem candidate actually," he says, before hastily clarifying: "I am genuinely going to vote for the person who I think is going to be the most relentless zealot for reform. I am not necessarily going to vote for a candidate from my own party.

"Those in the frame would be outstanding. What I mean is, it really would be a huge mistake for Parliament now to just fall back and have a tedious block tribal vote on this."

Does Sir Alan, who found his second home allowances under scrutiny this week, have the qualities he is looking for? Is Sir Menzies, with his £10,000 interior design bill, a positive force for change? Clegg, betraying a little ruthlessness, fails to back his predecessor explicitly, answering: "I think all of them do. I don't think there's any obvious lead candidate."

One veteran Lib Dem who will not be running is Vince Cable, Clegg's popular Treasury spokesman, who is being urged to stand. "Vince quite rightly says he wants to be a player, he doesn't want to be a referee. He's not going to stand. Vince and I want to be players in changing Britain."

So, if Cameron is a "joker," and yet the Lib Dems want to be players, where does that leave the party if the next election results in a hung parliament? "We really shouldn't waste time in having this conversation," Clegg says, sighing. But, don't people have a right to know what his position is? As the third party, the Lib Dems could be the kingmakers in a hung parliament. In what appears to be a shift in position, he says: "If the British people decide they don't want to give any party an outright mandate, then all politicians of all parties will need to get together to work out how we cobble things together so we keep the country ticking over and providing government."

Proportional representation remains a vital issue for Lib Dems, he says, but when I ask whether it remains a "deal-breaker" he adds: "Of course it's part of the recipe of reform that I want, but I haven't got a shopping list."

According to Clegg, the Labour Party under Brown is suffering from a "breakdown of its central nervous system". And the PM himself has an "odd inability to read the mood of the country". "Partly as a person he is at fault: he sits there in his bunker. He doesn't like dissent; he doesn't like engaging with other points of view." By contrast, he says, the Lib Dems are now the "voice of progress, conscience and reform and I think we will overtake Labour in terms of numbers".

Does he really think the Lib Dems, whose MPs number 63, can overtake Labour, which currently has a tally of 350? "Yes, over time. I'll tell you why. Because politics is about a contest of ideas and the best ideas will win out over time."

Clegg at first refuses to put a timetable on this grand plan, but when I ask if it will happen within a decade, he says: "Oh yes, I think things will happen relatively quickly. Of course, I can't tell you how and when, but I think the fact is that the intellectual battle is won. We now need to translate that into seats." Without his election strategist, Lord Rennard, that battle just became harder.

The making of a party leader

Born 7 January 1967 in Buckinghamshire to a half-Russian banker father and a Dutch mother.

1978 Attends Westminster School. At 16, as an exchange student in Munich, does community service after causing criminal damage – he burnt a professor's cacti.

1986 Studies archaeology and anthropology at Robinson College, Cambridge.

1993 Having worked in New York as a trainee journalist, he joins the Financial Times.

1994 Works for the European Commission in Brussels.

1999 MEP for the East Midlands.

2000 Marries Miriam Gonzalez Durantez. They have three sons.

2004 Stands down as an MEP to campaign for a Westminster seat.

2005 Becomes MP for Sheffield Hallam and Europe spokesman.

2006 Home Affairs spokesman.

December 2007 Elected leader of the Liberal Democrats.