Nick Clegg suffers rough ride at Q&A session

Nick Clegg suffered a rough ride at the hands of the public today over his decision to go into government with the Tories.

The Deputy Prime Minister was accused of failing to secure the key Liberal Democrat goal of electoral reform, supporting "brutal" social policies, ignoring tax avoiders and overseeing "dangerous" cuts in the NHS.

One participant at the question and answer session in Bristol likened Mr Clegg's alliance with David Cameron to the celebrity marriage between Cheryl and Ashley Cole, urging him: "Get out while you can, before it's too late."

Lawyer Shazada Hayat, from Bristol, told Mr Clegg: "You and David Cameron, I would like to say, are not ideal partners in this arranged marriage, because your policies are different, his policies are different. You don't agree.

"This honeymoon period has not gone down well.

"How long is this marriage going to last? Only you know. But what I would like to ask is, is this marriage going to end amicably, or is it going to be like Cheryl Cole, you will be screaming that 'I've been betrayed, betrayed, betrayed'.

"These cuts are affecting particularly students... old age pensioners are going to be suffering, and I know that you would never support that. For some reason you are remaining silent.

"I know in Afghanistan you want to bring the British troops back as soon as possible, and yet there's no date has been firmly fixed on that."

Mr Hayat said many voters had supported the Lib Dems because Mr Clegg was a "man of integrity, a man of modesty, a man we can rely on".

"I'd just like to say to you Nick, just like Cheryl Cole was advised - get out while you can, before it is too late," he added.

Mr Clegg responded that the earnings link for state pensions was being restored from next April.

"Much as your (question) was elegant and humorous, please do not just glibly pick up whatever a headline says," he insisted.

"We have taken decisions already which have sought to make sure that we are doing difficult things as fairly as possible."

The Deputy Prime Minister said the coalition had been "very clear that by 2015 all combat troops will be out of Afghanistan".

Ben Lock, 39, from Bristol, mocked Mr Clegg for constantly using the phrase "let me be absolutely clear".

"It seems now that the electorate misunderstood your election message on VAT, on the rate of spending cuts, on doing a deal with the Tories, and electoral reform," Mr Lock said.

"On the basis of this misunderstanding, we might assume you are either a poor communicator, you are taking the voters for fools or just a bit clumsy.

"So given the lack of a mandate currently, what justifies your rather brutal social policies, your tax rises? All the while you are protecting your own job under the guise of electoral reform."

Amid gasps and clapping from the audience, Mr Clegg replied sharply: "Thanks for such a helpful question. You've obviously got an axe to grind.

"Personally, it is not in my gift, and it shouldn't be in any individual's gift - not even yours, you seem very sure of yourself on this - to determine how people vote.

"Now whether you like it or not, and you clearly do not like it, what happened was no single party got an overall majority. So we had to take a decision."

As Mr Clegg tried to explain that "compromise" had been necessary to form the coalition with the Conservatives, he was repeatedly interrupted by Mr Lock and 26-year-old teaching assistant Rob Telford, who asked: "Why did you go into government then?"

The DPM indicated support for Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith's (IDS) proposals for reforming the welfare state.

"I think that the basic principles of what IDS has set out are, I think it is the first time a Government has been prepared to say to people we have got a problem and the problem is that the welfare system gets bigger and bigger," Mr Clegg said.

Nurse and former midwife Kim Farmer said she had been made redundant from NHS Direct because of demands for efficiency savings.

The 52-year-old warned: "If that is the way we are going to make savings in the public sector, what I am really worried about is how that is going to impact on patients' health."

Another nurse, 38-year-old Natasha Cook, who works at Cheltenham General Hospital, broke in: "Our staffing levels on our ward I think are dangerous at the moment.

"Patients are not getting the care that they need.

"Quite often we hand over from (our) shift and patients have not received any care that shift, because there are not enough of us on the ward to see every patient.

"Our budgets are being cut so at the moment our staffing levels are being cut."

Mr Clegg said the coalition was "determined" to maintain funding for the front line in the health service.

One audience member asked Mr Clegg why billionaire businessman Sir Philip Green had been recruited to conduct a review of Government efficiency.

There has been criticism of Sir Philip's tax arrangements, as although he is resident in the UK, his wife is based in Monaco.

The questioner suggested that the Arcadia boss could investigate tax avoidance, and Mr Clegg replied: "Good suggestion, thanks very much."

Mr Clegg was not asked about rumours - which have been denied - that former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy was considering defecting to Labour.

But interviewed after the session, he dismissed the rumours as a "silly season story".

"Not taking it seriously is putting it seriously mildly," he said.

"I can't do better than say what Charles has said, which is that it's the silliest of the silly season stories, it's just nonsense so I'm not going to waste any more time on it."

Speaking after the Q&A, Mr Clegg said: "I really enjoy these town hall meetings.

"I've been holding them for a long time when I was in opposition, I think it's really important to give people a chance to tell me what they think.

"And if they really want to give their views in a forthright way, I think that's a great thing because that's what our politics and democracy should be about."

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