'I can't stand him': Clegg overheard attacking team

Defeated leadership rival among targets of leader's unguarded remarks

Nick Clegg is certain to cast a suspicious gaze at his fellow travellers the next time he boards an plane. As the Liberal Democrat leader flew from London to Inverness last week, he shot the breeze with his closest adviser over the merits of his front bench team.

In a stroke of desperately bad luck for Mr Clegg, the seat in front was occupied by a journalist who listened agog to Mr Clegg's candid assessment of his colleagues as he speculated over reshuffling them.

Details of the conversation, reported in full, gory detail in the Sunday Mirror yesterday, made uncomfortable reading for senior Liberal Democrats yesterday. The episode left Mr Clegg ringing round his shadow cabinet to massage battered egos and reassure them their places around his top table were safe.

According to the paper, he had damning words for three of his most high-profile frontbenchers as he travelled on a 90-minute flight from London to Inverness with his chief of staff, Danny Alexander. With reporter Adam Lee-Potter eavesdropping, he reportedly said of Steve Webb, his energy and climate change spokesman: "He's a problem. I can't stand the man. We need a new spokesman. We have to move him. We need someone with good ideas. At the moment, they just don't add up." But he added: "We need to keep him in the cabinet. As a backbencher, he'd be a pain in the arse, a voice for the left. And we can't move him before the spring."

Mr Alexander then suggested: "How about Webb for foreign?" Mr Clegg replied: "He'd be useless. And he wouldn't do it." He then signalled that Julia Goldsworthy could be switched from her brief as communities and local government spokeswoman. He said: "We have to move her too. She gets patronised. And we can't give her Foreign. She's just not equipped to do it."

The Sunday Mirror also reported that Mr Clegg had harsh words for Chris Huhne, whom he beat for the party leadership and who is now home affairs spokesman. Mr Clegg said his former rival would not be suitable for the climate change post as the party needed someone "more emotionally intelligent" for the job and speculated about demoting him.

He even remarked that his ally, David Laws, who is the children, schools and families spokesman, was not enjoying his brief. Mr Clegg said: "The Tories have left him no space. But he's got a forensic intelligence; he's probably the best brain we have."

After the Sunday Mirror printed details of the in-flight conversation, Mr Clegg rang Mr Webb personally to reassure him he was an invaluable member of the team. In a brief statement, Mr Webb said he had had a "friendly conversation" with his leader. He added: "He has confirmed to me that the newspaper report doesn't accurately reflect his views." Mr Clegg's spokeswoman confirmed that other front-benchers named had also been contacted by his office.

The Liberal Democrat leader attempted to play down the row on BBC1's Politics Show. He said: "I, as every senior politician in this country, read every week articles claiming about what I've done or said, or even what I think. Almost all of them are widely inaccurate and this one, I mean, a lot of it is, just frankly, fiction."

His spokeswoman said: "We are not going to go into a forensic analysis of an overheard conversation on a very noisy aeroplane. Parts are misleading, others are put-together titbits of conversation. If someone wants to put them into a story, then so be it."

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