Clegg says 'bring on the hatred'

Deputy PM plans a hair-shirt tour to meet his many critics head on

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Indy Politics

First he was ignored. Then he was more popular than Churchill.

Now, with his poll ratings flat-lining and the prognosis bleak, Nick Clegg is looking to Roosevelt and planning to "welcome the hatred" of the Great British public.

The embattled Liberal Democrat leader is to embark on a national tour, putting himself in the line of fire as hundreds of members of the public tell him what they really think. Battle-hardened strategists hope the sight of the deputy PM taking on his opponents will act as "resilience training" for party members when they go campaigning on the doorstep.

The team behind the summer-long blitz, taking in 13 dates across every region in England, Wales and Scotland, say they are drawing inspiration from Franklin D Roosevelt who took on his rich and powerful opponents when campaigning for re-election as US president in 1936 with the dramatic declaration: "They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred."

The hair-shirt initiative has echoes of Tony Blair's "masochism strategy" in the run-up to the 2005 general election, when the Labour Prime Minister was repeatedly and angrily challenged by voters over the Iraq war, crime and immigration.

The list of grievances against Mr Clegg is long. He went along with the trebling of tuition fees, signed up to a Tory programme of spending cuts, the rise in VAT, and controversial welfare and NHS reforms, and failed to secure his party's dream of electoral reform.

Polling by ComRes for The Independent on Sunday reveals 36 per cent of people who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010 have now switched to back Labour, with around one in 10 now supporting the Tories. One in five party members quit last year, according to IoS research, with Lib Dem ministers seeing some of the biggest drops in support of up to 42 per cent. Ahead of the local elections last month, Mr Clegg told The IoS he thought the public was now willing to listen to the Lib Dems again, after a period when "a lot of people turned away from us in anger". The party went on to lose 330 councillors.

The next big electoral test will come in November, when voters choose police and crime commissioners across England and Wales. Having opposed the policy, the Lib Dems will field a candidate in around half of the contests.

The election of a mayor in Bristol is seen as a bigger, and more achievable, prize. A source said: "If we can win in Bristol, or come close, it will be a sign that we have moved on from Brian [Paddick] losing his deposit in London, from embarrassing defeats, all of that."

Aides believe Mr Clegg has some positive messages to sell to an unimpressed electorate. Notably, he has emerged untarnished from the Leveson inquiry, as both Labour and Tories were forced to defend getting too close to the Murdoch empire. The party base has also been buoyed by the sight of Mr Clegg leading the environmental agenda at the Rio summit last week, the Tory infighting over gay marriage and the Lib Dems' opposition to plans to scrap GCSEs.

The days of apologising for being in government are over, say party insiders. Instead, Mr Clegg will be seen to take on critics and attempt to explain what influence the party is having in government. "It is good for our members to see Nick setting out his case. It's good resilience training for them. It helps them when they knock on doors."

While an immediate challenge to Mr Clegg's leadership is unlikely, several attempts at relaunches and increased "differentiation" from the Tories have failed to bolster his party's poll ratings or stem public criticism from some members and activists.

Lord Greaves, a Lib Dem peer, launched an attack on the leadership, claiming those around Mr Clegg "have no more idea of what this party stands for and what our activists will put up with than they had a year ago".

In an article for this month's Liberator magazine, he warned that the Lib Dems "are still being lumbered with stuff that is politically bad for our party". He wrote: "Whether we have any more core vote to piss off is a matter for debate, but we still seem to be going out of our way to upset traditionally supportive lobbies such as civil liberties and the environment."