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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Loyal, robust, a little bit fuzzy – but Nick’s not completely dull


Waiting on Monday at Admiralty House for Nick Clegg, we were mesmerised by the slogans decorating the tasteful blue backdrop behind the podium: Fairer Society Stronger Economy. And to relieve the monotony, Stronger Economy Fairer Society. So why not further variants? Stronger Society Fairer Economy perhaps? Or would that be a little too controversial? Possibly, though the Deputy PM’s language is anyway a bit fuzzy on occasions. As in his soundbite on Ukip: “They appeal to people who want a better yesterday. I want a better tomorrow.”

This sounds good but is a bit unfair on Nigel Farage unless Clegg is in possession of a secret History of Britain by the Ukip leader in which the Normans never invaded and the sun never set on the British empire. Harking back to yesterday perhaps, but not – so far – trying to make it “better”.

Defending GCHQ’s apparently limitless powers of surveillance, Clegg said he had blocked the “snooper’s charter” which would have widened them still further. But in saying that the intelligence services are “different from the days of John Le Carré” he may have made an unfortunate choice. The author has kept up rather well with current trends in espionage, and the hero of his latest novel is topically threatened with trial by secret court, which Le Carré denounced and Clegg voted for.

On the bedroom tax he was similarly loyal, while agreeing, in what given the awe-inspiring rise in rent arrears across the country is surely the understatement of the week, that in the transition to a more “sensible” system “you might get families who might get caught out”. 

He robustly rejected the “loopy” manifesto ideas of Tory dissident backbenchers, along with David Cameron’s surrender to his backbenchers over demands for the married tax allowance. On Europe, too, he was a lot more robust than Labour complaining David Cameron plucked a referendum date out of “thin air” and affirming the Lib Dems would “always be the party of ‘in’”.

And he disagreed with the recommendation of an MPs’ pay rise, setting an example to fellow party leaders by saying he would pay it back. But would he publish his tax return? He was “totally relaxed” about doing so but would not act unilaterally as it needed a “collective” decision by ministers. Since the details were published, it would be “fantastically dull”. It would be unfair to say the same of his press conference. Only some of it was.