It can’t be easy being Nick Clegg. Barely five years ago he was being hailed as the most popular leader since Churchill, after a bravura performance in the television debates. Today, the Liberal Democrats are barely hitting double digits and his personal rating is less than minus 50 per cent.
To make matters worse, he has been “banned from the biscuit tin” after putting on a little extra weight, and has even given up smoking. “I’m vaping my way through the cravings,” he explains.
Part of the problem is that Clegg is still trying to escape from the shadow of tuition fees. The policy has, he admits, caused him “a lot of heartache.”
“Looking back, I wish we’d called it a graduate tax,” he says. “You pay your tax if you can afford to; you don’t if you can’t.” Clegg is sticking by the policy, and refuses to back Ed Miliband’s plans to reduce fees to £6,000. “What they’re doing is penalising pensioners on modest incomes in order to fund a tax break just for very, very wealthy graduates in 20, 30, 40 years’ time.”
The backlash is all too real for Clegg, who’s facing a challenge to hold his seat in the Sheffield Hallam constituency, where there is a large student population. Two polls have put his Labour challenger in the lead. Clegg says he is “confident but not complacent” and will “work his socks off” for people’s support.
There’s also the small matter of winning votes for the Lib Dems nationally. He thinks it’s “no surprise” that his party is doing so badly. “You have to get your hands dirty and take risks” when you’re in power, and can’t expect to cut the deficit in half and “emerge blemish-free”.
For all the talk of the economy, Clegg lists equal marriage as his proudest achievement. “After the legislation passed, a friend of mine who’s gay told me that, walking past Moss Bros, he saw a window display of two grooms. He’s not in a relationship, with no current plans to get married. But he said that, as he passed that shop window, he literally felt himself walk a bit taller.”
Gay rights remains high on the agenda. Clegg singles out Vladimir Putin’s Russia for criticism, and says that the “basic value” of freedom of sexuality is “trampled on” every day. He promises to promote a strategy of decriminalising homosexuality and supporting gay marriage around the world.
Closer to home, Clegg admits that his parliamentary party lags behind in terms of equality. In his words, it is, “too male and pale”. The Deputy Prime Minister says he is planning measures to improve his party’s diversity after the May election, but fears quotas can be viewed as “tokenistic”. Given Clegg has been leader of his party for eight years now, it’s not clear why he hasn’t taken effective action sooner.
Despite the abysmal poll numbers, Clegg genuinely seems to believe that things will turn round in time. So what is it that will change voters’ minds? His key promises include raising the income tax threshold to £12,500; and investing £8bn in the NHS, with a guarantee of equal billing for mental health, whilst balancing the books.
He hopes that on polling day people will ask themselves, “Do I want a government which panders to the extremes, or instead promises more opportunity for everyone by creating a strong economy and a fair society?”
In pictures: Top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in 2015
In pictures: Top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in 2015
1/12 Charlotte Rose, Brighton Pavilion
Sex worker Charlotte Rose stood in last year’s Rochester and Strood by-election on a platform of legalising brothels (she came 11th) and says the issue is “important for democracy”
Image taken from Twitter
2/12 Solomon Curtis, Wealden
The youngest candidate to emerge so far is Labour activist Solomon Curtis. Just 18, the young chap has a Tory majority of 17,000 to overturn to become the youngest MP ever
3/12 Doris Osen, Ilford North
The oldest candidate to declare, Doris Osen, 84, of Epic – Elderly Persons’ Independent Party – spent £1,000 on 30,000 fliers to voters
4/12 Dave Wasgij, Preston
Standing to give “piece a chance”, comedian Dave Wasgij has been captured by the jigsaw lobby and is promising free puzzles for OAPs
5/12 Joe Stead, Calder Valley
Protest singer Joe Stead will provide colour at the count. He says war can be prevented through music alone
6/12 Arthur Uther Pendragon, Salisbury
He’s stood for Parliament in five elections and believes he’s the reincarnation of the King Arthur. Apparently, the stones say this is finally his year
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
7/12 Greg Clough, Islington
An Australian married to a Greek, Ukip’s Greg Clough wants to stop immigrants using “our” NHS
8/12 Colin Bex, Eastleigh
Colin Bex’s mission is self-government for the ancient lands of Wessex
9/12 Dave Bishop, seat TBC
Standing alternately as Elvis Loves Pets, The Church of the Militant Elvis, Lord Biro and the Bus Pass Elvis, Dave Bishop (below) has stood since 1997. Among his policy ideas are “free neutering for cats and Boris Johnson”
10/12 Mark Flanagan, Leeds North West
Mark Flanagan is giving voters the option of voting for “none of the above” and thereby rejecting every other candidate
11/12 Al Murray, South Thanet
Presumably wants a boost in sales for his next comedy DVD
12/12 Robert Boaler, South Thanet
Robert Boaler for the Al-Zebabist Nation of Ooog party, wants to build a “great wall of Thanet” to save the town from nearby elite in Broadstairs
The difficulty is getting the message across. “In that culture of left vs right it’s hard to prove a negative – as in stopping your coalition partner from doing something extreme.” He adds: “There have been many mad and sometimes downright nasty policies the Tories have cooked up which we stopped ever seeing the light of day”.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Clegg thinks that his party has received less credit that it deserves. He highlights the pupil premium for disadvantaged schoolchildren which was introduced by the Coalition, and points out that this was “front and centre” of his manifesto in 2010. Ending child detention for immigration purposes is an “unsung achievement”.
But even if the Lib Dems haemorrhage seats, Clegg could still hold the trump card if, as expected, there is a hung Parliament. If he does, he won’t be doing the Tories any favours. Instead, he is sticking to the ground rules he set in 2010.
“As [with] last time, it is right that the party with the biggest mandate from the British people – the most votes and the most seats – should be given the first opportunity to reach out to other parties,” he insists, believing that this would be working in the national interest to provide a stable government.
Clegg does however, predict that it will be obvious who has the biggest mandate, and “the idea that there will be a sort of photo finish is extremely unlikely”.
He won’t be drawn on his red lines in a potential coalition agreement, although the “front-page policies” in the manifesto will be his “top priorities”. He is enthusiastic about education from “cradle to college” and would be keen to ring-fence the education budget. An even more vexed question is whether Clegg himself will still be around to sort out the mess, even if he does retain his seat.
When I ask him if he will be the Lib Dem leader at the end of the year, his response is simply, “Yes.”
What about his potential challengers? Tim Farron was slapped down by Lord Ashdown last month, apparently for being on manoeuvres, but Clegg is far kinder to his colleague, stating that “Tim, Paddy and I – we are all cut from the same yellow cloth… Tim is one of the best and brightest Liberal Democrat MPs.” He maintains that the pair “actually get on well”. I’m not sure I believe him.