Andrew Grice: Clegg may be catching flak from all sides, but all is not lost just yet

Inside Politics
Click to follow

Nick Clegg feels like a man with his head in the stocks. Passers-by throw rotten fruit at him. They are not always sure why. But everyone else does it, so they join in.

It is not a nice place to be, but he is getting used to it. He has had to grow several extra layers of skin in his 10 months as Deputy Prime Minister. The title sounds grand, but it is a long way from being Prime Minister and the trappings of power are thin. I travelled with Mr Clegg to Sheffield for this weekend's Liberal Democrat conference – he went standard class on a cheap pre-booked ticket, carrying his own spare suit.

Cartoonists portray him as David Cameron's butler "Cleggers". A more serious caricature takes shape on the news pages. Mr Clegg is said to knock off work at 3pm. That one was based on an email sign-off used by most ministerial offices indicating a deadline for papers to be included in their boss's red box. A 3pm finish would be news to Mr Clegg's family, since he often works a 15-hour day. Some bad headlines are his own fault but are wildly exaggerated. A recent off-the-cuff joke as a journalist left the room at the end of an interview made it look as though he didn't know or care who was in charge while he was on holiday and Mr Cameron was in the Middle East.

Mr Clegg is frustrated that he gets a kicking from both The Guardian and the Daily Mail. The former reflects the anger on the left that he hopped into bed with the Conservatives. The right-wing press would – surprise, surprise – prefer a pure Tory Government not tempered by the Liberal Democrats. Mr Clegg offers them a convenient way to attack the Government without undermining Mr Cameron.

That disastrous sixth place in the Barnsley Central by-election may have been in a "Labour fiefdom", as Mr Clegg told me, but it was a foretaste of worse to come in the 5 May elections to English councils, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. As a party leader's message for his footsoldiers, "hold your nerve" has a limited shelf life. Mr Clegg now admits he needs to go further. He will tell the Liberal Democrats they have reasons to be cheerful. He is memorising a long list of policy gains overshadowed by the spending cuts but which he is sure will bear fruit later in the parliament.

Will the voters reward the Liberal Democrats? Somehow, I doubt it. They tend not to say "thank you" to politicians. But Mr Clegg has a point. Once he had taken his party into the Coalition, it had to be for the long haul. He was quicker than some Liberal Democrats to realise that an early general election would be a kamikaze act.

He is a realist and doesn't pretend everything is wonderful. With hindsight, he told me, it would have been better to have called the new system of higher education funding a "time-limited graduate tax" rather than invite all those damaging headlines about £9,000 tuition fees. When students and parents are told no fees will be payable upfront, he conceded, they either don't believe it or worry about leaving university saddled with £27,000 of debts. Perhaps he and Mr Cameron were too keen to look joined at the hip. By mutual agreement, they are starting to reassure their supporters that their parties have not lost their soul and morphed into a single Coalition Party.

A few more controlled explosions are on the cards. Although some will not go off until after the May referendum on the voting system, this weekend will see the Liberal Democrats reassert their separate identity.

Their focus groups reveal a sense of disappointment that the freshness which captured people's imagination during last year's general election has not survived the transition to government. Another negative is that people expect Mr Clegg to be an equal partner with Mr Cameron, and make little allowance for him having 57 MPs to the Tories' 307. So Mr Clegg needs to show voters his party is punching above its weight – which he is convinced it is.

Mr Clegg struck me as remarkably resilient. He has taken heart from the focus groups. They suggest that, despite the scars left by the tuition fees disaster, the Liberal Democrat brand is not broken. Although the fees U-turn has damaged Mr Clegg personally, many people still seem to like him. He passes the "would you like to have a pint with him?" test. Mr Cameron is seen as a decisive leader but people are unsure about whether he and his party are committed to fairness for all. Ed Miliband is regarded as a weak leader.

So all is not lost for Mr Clegg. The biggest threat to him from his own party will not be this weekend but at its annual conference in September, especially if the referendum on the alternative vote is not won. For Mr Clegg, things can only get worse before they get better. He may need to grow a few more layers of skin yet.