The decisive moment came early in the first of Nick Clegg’s weekly radio phone-ins on LBC, when ex-Lib Dem county councillor John from Surrey, who had torn up his party membership card, said he was “just wondering” if the Deputy Prime Minister had his own card on him. “Not on me right now,” the party leader replied. “Do you remember what it says on it?” asked John. “Yes,” said Clegg.
This was the fork in the road. It is only fair to say that if Clegg felt a second’s sheer, full-onset, bowel-churning panic, he showed no sign of it. Maybe he doesn’t carry his card because he knows every word of its contents by heart. But the point is that John didn’t ask him to recite them, despite the frivolous hopes of some of us listeners.
And if even John, who had left the party after 30 years because was so “ashamed” of what he saw as its betrayal of the principles inscribed on the card and which he proceeded to read out on air (“values of liberty, equality and community ... no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” and suchlike), was not going to test his memory, then it was a fair bet the leader was going to get a fairly easy ride.
Which, by and large, he did. True, the only supportive questioner, and the last - asking whether he had ever worn a “onesie” - was a Lib Dem from Clegg’s own political base of Sheffield. After admitting that he had been given a “big green” version of the inexplicably popular adult babygro equivalent but that it was still “in its packaging”, he later mysteriously amplified this at a press gallery lunch to say that he had “held it against my person”.
He was asked by presenter Nick Ferrari if he would be prepared to don it in public for charity. “It’s almost certainly something I would do in the privacy of my own home,” he replied guardedly. And then only at gunpoint, he did not need to add.
But while there were plenty of criticisms, especially on tuition fees, benefits and defence cuts - and he postively revelled in the Coalition’s split over Europe, saying somewhat optimistically that David Cameron would be making his much-trailed EU speech as “Conservative leader” - there was no Belgrano moment. (As in when the geography teacher Diane Gould infuriated Margaret Thatcher on BBC Nationwide during the 1983 election by challenging her to admit that an Argentinian warship had been sunk while steaming away from the Falklands).
So if this was part of his “masochism strategy” to rebuild the party’s image after a string of bad Lib Dem by-election results (“at least we were in the top 10!” he later joked about coming eighth at Rotherham) there wasn’t much pain. Perhaps that will come in subsequent weeks. Meanwhile, Clegg should probably memorise the text on his party card - in the unlikely event he hasn’t already done so.