Clegg: The leader who's learning how to be taken seriously

After his first year in charge of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg has built morale among his MPs, despite volatile poll ratings and the occasional jibe in the Commons. Ben Russell reports

For Nick Clegg, the howls of laughter that greeted a recent Commons question about a constituent with money problems epitomised the political mountain he has to scale.

The Liberal Democrat leader had planned to use his regular clash with Gordon Brown at Prime Minister's Question Time to describe the fear of a young woman facing the threat of court because she had been overpaid tax credits. Instead, no sooner were the words out of his mouth than one quick-witted MP yelled out "31!" and the full chamber collapsed at the memory of an interview Mr Clegg gave to the former Mirror editor Piers Morgan where he said he had slept with "no more than 30" women.

The 41-year-old Liberal Democrat leader sat down, the frustration showing on his face as the force of his point ebbed away in the noise.

On the first anniversary of his leadership, the episode highlighted the immense task facing the leader of the third force in British politics to be taken seriously – both by MPs and the public. "He's often said his skin has become a lot thicker," one aide said.

Mr Clegg does not lack confidence. His keynote party conference speech was finished the day before he spoke – some of his predecessors would have agonised over its wording until the moment of arriving on stage.

But he has told friends he has found the job of leader more difficult than he imagined when he took it a year ago. There is thinly disguised frustration at the jibes a leader must face and the daily struggle to be heard, particularly through a media dominated by the battle between the two major parties. He has found that being a young, telegenic, articulate performer is not enough to drive home his ambition of breaking the two-party system.

Private polling for the party in the summer summarised the problem. Those voters who knew who he was regarded him as honest and sincere, but many had no opinion of him and said he had little prospect of being able to implement his ideas.

Mr Clegg holds a conference call with key aides every morning, has started lobby briefings with Westminster journalists and spends a day a week campaigning around the country. He has held 30 town hall since he became leader, taking questions on any subject from audiences of at most 200 people.

He was the only party leader to turn out on a bitterly cold afternoon on Saturday to address a rally against climate change, before taking his two sons to see a movie.

Mr Clegg confesses that he finds it hard to do "really thoughtful work" in Westminster's "slightly frenzied atmosphere," preferring to retreat to the attic study of his south-west London home. Allies are waiting for the oxygen of publicity that a general election will provide – when broadcasters are obliged to give Mr Clegg airtime – and believe it is then that he will make a connection with the public.

Mr Clegg is not an instinctive House of Commons man. He has long expressed his weary concern that the heated partisan battles of Westminster are less suited to mature political debate than the more consensual style of the European Parliament, where he was a member for five years. He only entered Parliament in 2005. When he arrived he expressed astonishment to friends at the arcane workings, traditions and stifling rules of Westminster. He shows open irritation at the brickbats that are part and parcel of a party leader's life, but as a leader of MPs he is effective. Colleagues describe him as a collegiate leader who treats his frontbenchers well, and sounds enthusiastic. One frontbencher said: "It has been incredibly difficult for Nick since he took over. Everything has been so dominated by the economy and such airtime the Lib Dems have has gone to Vince [Cable], whichis fair enough."

Another member of Mr Clegg's cabinet said: "I think we are remarkably strong given all the winds outside. Our poll ratings have held up well. It's less than during the Iraq war. You might say, 'surely we should be doing better,' but maintaining this level is pretty good given the circumstances."

Some in the party are frustrated that he has to be identified by a single memorable idea that will stick in the public imagination. But others are aware that this takes time and there are dangers of being seen as a single-issue party.

Figures close to Mr Clegg say he has been irked by the high profile of Mr Cable, his Treasury spokesman, who has become arguably the party's best-known figure for his sage-like pronouncements on the economy. In private, Mr Clegg is naturally open and candid. He exasperated aides when he gave a candid answer about his typically middle-class concerns about re-mortgaging his home and created a stir when he declared that he did not believe in God.

But he has been clear about his political instincts, insisting that he will refuse to hold an ID card, speaking out strongly for civil liberties and sticking to ideas such as green taxes.

Mr Clegg has reason to be frustrated. A year after he promised to "break the stifling grip of the two-party system for good," the battle for political supremacy between Gordon Brown and David Cameron leaves the third party still struggling to get its voice heard on many issues.

The latest Independent poll of polls shows support for Mr Clegg's party slipping, falling to an average of 15 per cent last month – a point down on December last year. Yet morale among Mr Clegg's troops is high. They feel they have a leader for the long run and that his hugely ambitious goal of doubling the party's 62 parliamentary seats in two general elections is achievable.

The most recent polls do not look so optimistic. The average of polls in November would strip the Lib Dems of more than half of their seats. But they would potentially produce a hung parliament and give the party power to make or break a minority Tory or Labour administration.

The prospect of a hung Parliament is good and bad for Mr Clegg. The idea that the party could wield real power suddenly means its policies might actually happen. But the party risks getting bogged down in damaging arguments about whether it would back the Conservatives or prop up Labour.

But Mr Clegg insists he will not discuss the prospect of becoming an "annex" to another party. He will use the first anniversary of his election next week to press the Government to divert its efforts to stimulate the British economy towards investment in green power and energy-saving methods, a "green jobs revolution" he says is needed to help bring Britain out of recession.

Mr Clegg plans to hammer home the party's message of tax – a 4p cut in the basic rate of income tax, paid for by green levies and a clampdown on capital taxation, and talk more about child care and family issues. His wife, Miriam, is expecting the couple's third child in February, when Mr Clegg will take a break from the fray for paternity leave.

Mark Littlewood, the former head of media for the party, warned that Mr Clegg risked getting a reputation for gaffes, but added: "He now has a party that is at ease with itself. It is a united party and he has earned that."

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