Nick Clegg: 'We will not play games with other parties'

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, will be in a powerful position if the election leads to a hung parliament, but he refuses to be drawn on what he would do as kingmaker
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Indy Politics

Nick Clegg's diary is in chaos this week. His one-year-old son Miguel developed breathing difficulties on Sunday night. The next morning Mr Clegg and his Spanish wife, Miriam, took him to their GP, who said he should go immediately to Chelsea and Westminster hospital. The initial treatment did not work and he was kept in for two nights. Although now back at home, he is still a bit wheezy.

Mr Clegg has been rushing between the hospital and his tiny House of Commons office. He does the school run for his five- and eight-year-old boys. His wife works full-time as a commercial lawyer, and although he has a general election to fight, there is no doubting where his priorities lie. "I am a dad before I am a politician," he told his staff this week. They have repeatedly rearranged his diary; some engagements were cancelled and he was late for others.

Before Miguel was ill, he wasn't sleeping well, so it was understandable that Mr Clegg looked bleary-eyed when he arrived at his Commons office at 8.45am yesterday. "He is the most adorable little baby but he doesn't like sleeping. He just wants to play all the time," he explained.

To complicate his week even further, Mr Clegg is being shadowed by an ITV camera crew making an hour-long documentary about him – an unexpected bonus for the Liberal Democrats after the Tories went ballistic about that Piers Morgan interview with an emotional Gordon Brown. But Mr Clegg is not complaining: for years, his party has grumbled about the media's portrayal of politics as a two-horse race. Last week's agreement on Britain's first televised debates between the leaders has had a knock-on effect; the Liberal Democrats sense that three-party politics has finally arrived.

So Mr Clegg has a wonderful opportunity denied to his predecessors. At the same time, he has been prematurely anointed "the kingmaker" after a string of opinion polls pointed to a hung parliament. It sounds grand, but it is the sharpest double-edged sword in British politics. True, the prospect that the Liberal Democrats might hold the balance of power ensures even more attention. But it also means that the media bombards them with questions about whether they would lean towards the Tories or Labour if neither party wins an overall majority.

The 43-year-old Liberal Democrat leader is contemptuous about what "what if" politics and "crystal ball gazing". He has been reminded by his party's wise owls that such speculation has wrecked their party's campaigns in previous elections.

So his strategy is to talk about what the Liberal Democrats would want rather than whom they would support. He will use his party's spring conference in Birmingham this weekend to spell out the "four steps to fairness" that would be his negotiating demands in a hung parliament: taking four million people out of tax and raising taxes for the rich; investing more in educating children from poor families; a new greener economy; and political reform, including a new voting system for Westminster.

But the $64,000 question is not going away, and there are already signs that senior Liberal Democrat figures are giving slightly different answers. That spells trouble.

On Sunday morning, his deputy, Vince Cable, told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme that all options, including a formal coalition deal, were possible, saying: "We're not ruling anything out." By Sunday night, Baroness (Shirley) Williams of Crosby, the party's former leader in the Lords, was telling BBC Radio 4's Westminster Hour: "We will support whichever party has the largest number of seats ... We will not enter into a coalition with them. We will ask them to show us their legislative intentions, effectively the Queen's Speech. We will tell them what we can support. We will tell them what we can't support ... That is the only proper way to behave."

It seemed a plausible and definitive statement. Had Lady Williams let the cat out of the bag? "No," Mr Clegg replied, insisting that he had talked with the veteran former Labour cabinet minister about such matters last week and that was not hers or the party's view.

Mr Clegg prefers Mr Cable's version. He is desperate to keep his options open. "We are not here to play games with other parties," he said. "We are here to secure a big mandate for the big changes we want in Britain. Once we know the lie of the land after the election, we have to work out the best way to do that."

Unlike Lady Williams, Mr Clegg will not say how he would define which of the big two parties has the strongest mandate in a hung parliament. "We are not setting out a mathematical formula of whether it is votes or seats. If you say 'seats' you get a headline saying you are in the Labour corner. If you say 'votes' you are in the Tory corner."

He argued that a "photo-finish" – in which the Tories got a higher share of the votes cast but Labour emerged with more seats – was "conceivable but unlikely". He added: "We will cross that bridge when we get to it."

Mr Clegg said that "no deals" would be discussed with either party before the election. "You cannot put the cart before the horse," he repeatedly asserted. It is a phrase we will hear a lot of in the next eight weeks. Another is: "We take our marching instructions from the voters."

While he will not look at different options on the "Rubik's cube," he will set out one democratic principle.

"If a party with no majority has the strongest mandate, we accept the principle that that party has the right to govern either on its own or to reach out to others. People constantly ask us to speculate on what would happen with this twist or that turn. The key thing is to reassure people that it is their votes that count – not the whims or personal wishes, the fickle likes or dislikes of politicians. The tramlines in which we all travel will be settled by the way people vote."

Mr Clegg dismissed as a "crass assumption" the idea that there is a "cliff edge" which means the country would either have "coalition or chaos". He said: "There are a whole range of possibilities. They will all be shaped by the mandate given by the voters."

Ironically, the tempting prospect of being the kingmaker could harm the Liberal Democrats' prospects, as the two big guns turn their fire on the third party and the financial markers get the heebie-jeebies about a hung parliament. Indeed, Tory leaflets in the South-west warn that a vote for the Liberal Democrats would risk another five years of Mr Brown, while Labour propaganda in the North warns that a vote for the third party could let the Tories in. It is a familiar squeeze. "It is desperate, mendacious, misleading and it won't work," Mr Clegg insisted.

He admitted that, now that his party is firmly in the spotlight, it had to "learn lessons" from the rather cack-handed proposal of its "mansion tax" on expensive homes last September. "We could have done a bit more homework," he conceded. But he insisted that the party's instincts were right and that the now-modified plan (applying to homes worth £2m rather than £1m) will be in its manifesto.

Mr Clegg claims that the Liberal Democrats now have a greater unity of purpose than for many years. They have the biggest geographical spread of any party and he is confident they will build on the six million votes they won in 2005. "We now need to move on to a different level," he said.

But could his cash-strapped party afford a second election this year if the first one results in a hung parliament, as occurred in 1974? "We will fight elections whenever they happen," he said, but warned the other parties against calling one rather than trying to reach a long-term understanding with his party. "It would be the height of self-indulgence to elevate narrow party political advantage over the interests of the nation if it did not get the answer it wants the first time and petulantly asks people again until it gets the right answer."

Although the stakes are high, Mr Clegg takes a statesmanlike view of the TV debates. "I just hope they work – not for me, Gordon Brown or David Cameron – but by engaging people in the election. It is a great opportunity to set out our stalls," he said.

Unlike Labour and the Tories, he is not importing teams of American advisers to coach him for the three showdowns. "I want to be myself, as much as I can be. You have to have a balance between being prepared but not over-preparing, rehearsing but not over-rehearsing," he said. With the heavy demands of being a family guy, how are his preparations going? "At the moment, I am probably under-rehearsed and under-prepared."

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