Andrew Grice: From Saint Nick to Calamity Clegg: what a difference a year makes

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The Independent Online

A year ago, I put my foot in it with Nick Clegg.

Actually, I put my foot in his lunch while interviewing him on the back seat of his chauffeur-driven car. I didn't realise my left foot was perched on a plastic bag containing his Marks and Spencer sandwich.

It was the height of Cleggmania, after the first leaders' TV debate suddenly turned an unknown Liberal Democrat leader into a serious threat to Labour and the Conservatives. Mr Clegg was unmoved by his sudden fame; he hadn't changed. But success was not without its drawbacks. The right-wing press, which didn't want a coalition, went gunning for him. It hasn't stopped since.

His party didn't make the breakthrough the opinion polls suggested during the campaign. But the bitter disappointment of ending up with fewer seats was soon forgotten. The Lib Dems held the balance of power and the next time I saw Mr Clegg he was Deputy Prime Minister. No airs and graces though. "You destroyed my lunch!" he barked, recalling my faux pas.

I was rather surprised that Mr Clegg took his party into coalition with the Conservatives. Was the guy who had spoken so passionately to me about poverty in Sheffield in our pre-election chats more right-wing than I had realised? But as the weeks passed I could see why he hooked up with David Cameron. Labour had lost the election, was exhausted and the parliamentary numbers were not there for a Lib-Lab coalition. It wouldn't have lasted. The Lib-Con one was best for the country.

Mr Clegg became a hate figure for Labour and when I interviewed him on the eve of the Liberal Democrats' annual conference last September, the party had lost a third of its election support in the polls. Starkly, he declared there was "no future" for the Liberal Democrats as a left-wing alternative to Labour.

Mr Clegg was less bubbly the next time we met – at Chevening, the country residence in Kent he shares with the Foreign Secretary William Hague. He was a good host, but it was November and the toll taken by his spectacular U-turn on university tuition fees was obvious. He was knackered. His party's poll ratings were heading towards single figures. He knew that 2011 would be an even more difficult year as the spending cuts started to hurt.

The Deputy PM was back to his old self during our next encounter in February, a one-to-one chat in his grand office in Whitehall overlooking St James's Park. Still no airs and graces, though. I said he sometimes gave the impression of being swamped, of trying to do too much. Was his operation big enough? He replied that he didn't want a rival power base to Mr Cameron; it was better for them to work closely together. He accepted, though, that after a united start, the coalition was entering a second phase in which its leaders would not be joined at the hip.

A month later, I interviewed Mr Clegg on a train to Sheffield for his party's spring conference. Although he expected trouble over the Government's health reforms, he looked relaxed, sitting in his socks. He was his usual candid self, admitting the Government had not "sold" its university funding policy well.

His honesty sometimes gets him into hot water. Unwisely, he said he was "not a punchbag" but a human being with feelings in a recent interview with his friend Jemima Khan for the New Statesman. But he is much more resilient than the "cry baby" headlines that interview produced would suggest.

With the economy and the cuts at the top of the agenda, it is remarkable that Mr Clegg rather than George Osborne has become public enemy number one. The Chancellor certainly expected to be. But Mr Osborne can keep his head down between big statements and speeches, while there is no hiding place for Mr Clegg, a convenient whipping boy for both left and right. Yet there is much more to him than the caricature that emerges through the prism of an almost universally hostile press. The narrative is fixed: Calamity Clegg. But he will struggle to change it.

In a rollercoaster year, he has gone from Cleggmania to Old Nick. Perhaps fittingly, what Mr Clegg regarded as his best week was one of his worst in media terms. When the new financial year started this month, he reflected with pride as some of his party's achievements took effect: a £1,000 rise in tax thresholds; the pupil premium for children from poor families; and ballot papers going out for the referendum on voting reform. He felt his party was making a difference.

Yet the media coverage he secured that week was overwhelmingly negative. There was the ill-fated New Statesman interview and an own goal when he launched the Government's social mobility strategy. His crackdown on unpaid interns boomeranged because he didn't own up at the start to taking advantage of the old boys network himself.

Now the coalition is entering a third phase. This week's "row" over immigration, three weeks before the English council elections, suited both Tories and Lib Dems, reminding their supporters that they have not morphed into one party. But that won't stop Mr Clegg collecting another crop of bad headlines when the results come in. All he can do is play it long, hope that the economic medicine he helped to prescribe works and try to get some credit for measures the Tories would not have introduced if they had governed alone.

The pre-election skirmishes inside the coalition do not mean it is about to collapse. But Mr Clegg will have to work hard to keep the Lib Dems on board, let alone persuade the public that his party has been a force for good. He will need all the resilience he can muster in what will be another year of living dangerously.

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