Nick Clegg: Policy wonk who kept cool and drove a hard bargain

Focused and astute, the Lib Dem leader sees politics as a battle of ideas
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Indy Politics

Nick Clegg, the first Liberal Democrat in the party's history to sit at the Downing Street Cabinet table, will not be daunted by the trappings and responsibilities of office. Although a newcomer to Whitehall, he has an insider's knowledge of political power and its operation.

In Brussels he negotiated perilous territory on behalf of the European Union with both the Chinese and the Russians. I wonder if he recalled those negotiations as he began talks with the Conservatives.

From his Brussels experience he will know that these coalitions are often held together by the strength of the relationship between the respective leaders. He has pondered that truth when meeting David Cameron over the last few days.

Mr Clegg will not be bothered by the trivia – such as the fact that Rory Bremner finds it hard to imitate him – but will be animated by the path ahead. He will have with him a team which is totally dedicated – he generates that kind of loyalty from friends and from those who work for him.

That same team was not surprised when he had his breakthrough in the first leaders' debate. Although a shock for most, it came as no surprise for those close to him. Indeed, the small and, until now, select, press corps who took the time to get to know him were also expecting a strong performance.

Throughout these five tumultuous days, as his party has stared down an abyss, he was fully aware of the fact that elsewhere in the EU, the average time to form a government is 40 days. He kept his cool. His message has been consistent and clear: the structural deficit comes first, economic policy is cardinal.

His breadth of understanding of the world will help him too, and the influence of his family here remains strong: his mother was a prisoner of war in a camp in Indonesia in the Second World War and his father's mother was a Russian emigré who fled during the revolution. That background underpins his liberal values. He likes to say that the greatest lesson his family taught him was that the way things are is not the way they have to be.

He was raised in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire – a background far removed from the northern industrial heartland he represents as a Sheffield MP. He was put through the traditional system of shaping Britain's upper-middle class of technocrats and politicians: prep school, followed by Westminster School and Oxbridge.

After prep, which he has described as "stiflingly conventional", Mr Clegg said he found his Westminster schooling in the heart of the capital "a breath of fresh air". His peers included Marcel and Louis Theroux, the sons of the American novelist and travel writer Paul, who became close friends; the actress Helena Bonham Carter and musician Gavin Rossendale, of the rock band Bush.

One of his teachers was impressed with the broadminded instincts of the young Mr Clegg, whose early leadership credentials led to him being made head of his school house. As the former teacher put it: "He was astonishingly receptive. What impressed me most was his openness, the willingness to explore."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, the man who then emerged from Robinson College, Cambridge, with a 2:1 in social anthropology was not a careerist proto-politician.

Apart from playing tennis for his college and treading the am-dram boards in the title role of a production of Cyrano de Bergerac directed by one Sam Mendes, the only sign of Mr Clegg's future calling was his membership of the university's Tory society. Even then, he has insisted, it was because the group attracted interesting speakers.

Mr Clegg became a bit of a citizen of the world. He studied in Bruges, dabbled in environmentalism in Minnesota while on a year-long scholarship, and worked as an intern under Christopher Hitchens at New York's The Nation magazine.

After a promising spell as a journalist at the Financial Times, the multilingual Mr Clegg (he speaks English, Dutch, French, German and Spanish) found his path led to Brussels. In 1994, he took up a post at the European Commission to work as a bureaucrat in a team dealing with the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Rapidly spotted as a bright young thing (via an introduction from family friend and Tory grandee Lord Carrington), Mr Clegg was offered a job in the private office of Lord Brittan, then the UK's trade commissioner, and experienced a political awakening. Lord Brittan, whose entreaties to his speech writer to stand as a Conservative MEP were turned down, observed: "I think he is a sort of social libertarian and an economic liberal but at the same time he thinks the state has to and should play a role." Mr Clegg comes from a classic liberal tradition; he doesn't need to consult the handbook.

Like a generation of politicians in the Liberal Democrats, he has an ambition for government and an impatience with perpetual opposition. He bounces through the family chaos around with him with absolute focus – he weighs up opinions, listens. Those who work with him believe he has well-tuned political antennae.

His civil servants will enjoy the debates and discussions. They will find he has a touch of the policy geek about him – a reason why he felt it necessary to find a policy solution to the numbers of illegal immigrants here rather than ignoring the issue altogether. That policy geek element has provided amusing moments: for instance, when all three leaders were asked by a glossy women's magazine for their mentor, the other two leaders said their wives. Mr Clegg said Samuel Beckett.

He sees politics as a battle of ideas, and maintains a fascination with policies from different parts of the world. He was the first politician in the UK to push the pupil premium as a major issue in the negotiations with the Conservatives, after visiting Denmark and the Netherlands.

He will enjoy and relish the involvement of thinktanks, academia, the business community. But his constituency in Sheffield will keep him grounded in the major challenges that people face today. He has enjoyed his public town hall debates – held weekly since he became leader – and may wish to continue to them in order to stay in touch.

If Mr Clegg's private office staff want to handle him well, they will understand that he works hard but loves to drop off the kids at school or do bedtime. His current office writes that into the schedule in order to keep him chirpy in the tougher moments. Those irksome times were in his first few months of leadership, the day-in, day-out struggle to get any recognition. Today's events will hopefully make that a thing of the past. But different and significant challenges await, particularly over the next few days.

One of his most illuminating moments recently was the day of the second leaders' debate. Five newspapers from the right-wing stable accused him of anything from being Hitler to cheating on expenses. Most politicians with their super-thin skins would have crumbled under that pressure. He remained totally focused on the debate. He knew that his team was handling the newspapers and he trusted them to get on with it. It is a rare quality in a politician to focus on the critical issues and not get dragged into minutiae, to have a strong sense of the ultimate goal. Nick Clegg has that in spades.

Olly Grender was press secretary to the former Liberal Democrat leader, Lord Ashdown

Clegg in Brief

Born 7 January 1967

Family Married to Miriam Gonzalez Durantez since 2000, three sons: Antonio, Alberto and Miguel

Education Caldicott School; Westminster; Robinson College, Cambridge; University of Minnesota.

Pre-parliamentary career Journalism; European Commission aid programme. MEP for East Midlands, 1999-2004. Worked for lobbying firm GPlus, 2004. Elected MP for Sheffield Hallam, 2005.

Career after election Worked as Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Europe, before taking the job of the party's Home Affairs spokesperson, which he held from 2 March 2006 until 18 December 2007. Elected leader of the Liberal Democrats on 18 December 2007.

In his own words

On himself

"I became a liberal not in a library, but over the dinner table, in the car, in the park, in conversation with my mum."

On his party

"I believe liberalism is the thread that holds together everything this country stands for."

On Labour

"I have always accepted the first part of Roy Jenkins' analysis, which says that, historically, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are two wings of a progressive tradition in British politics."

On David Cameron

"There is just a gulf between what David Cameron stands for and what I stand for, in terms of values, in terms of internationalism, in terms of fairness, in terms of political reform."

On his youthful indiscretions

"I think we all have blemishes in our past."

On the number of women he has slept with

"No more than 30."

What others say

"Nick is a Conservative. His views are very like mine" (Kenneth Clarke) "If you flirt with Nick Clegg, you'll wake up with David Cameron." (Lord Mandelson)