Nick Clegg: Deputy PM rages against Cameron 'lies'

Exclusive: After weeks as the target in the bitter AV referendum battle, the Lib Dem leader pulls no punches in his most outspoken comments yet

Matt Chorley,Political Correspondent
Sunday 24 April 2011 00:00 BST

Nick Clegg is spoiling for a fight with just about everyone – David Cameron, Andrew Lansley, all Tories, Ed Miliband, John Reid, universities, the Daily Mail, Germany, even his own MPs.

Rivals will dismiss this as mere pre-election posturing: creating false dividing lines in a desperate attempt to avert a bloodbath in town halls the length of the country.

But it seems to go deeper than that. After he has attacked in all but name by every Tory from the PM down, the rules of engagement have changed. Aides say Clegg has woken up to pleas from his party to make clear the Liberal Democrat influence in government, even if that means rocking the coalition boat. As a final effort to save his own skin, it could be too late. But he is going down fighting.

The main battleground is over his attempt to ditch first past the post for the alternative vote in 5 May's referendum. The stakes are high, which explains the escalation of tensions at the heart of government. The Prime Minister, in particular, gets both barrels: accused of telling "lies", using big Tory money to fund "the very nastiest reactionary politics".

Clegg's remarks on the conduct of Cameron and opponents of AV are extraordinary, condemning the "death rattle of a right-wing elite, a right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are". Does he mean the Prime Minister specifically? "Look, I include all those, and of course it includes the Conservative Party, who like this nice little racket. They get a job for life and they waft into power and they don't even need to bother try to get a majority of people onside."

After emerging victorious from the TV debates last year, Clegg has been imagining a leaders' broadcast on the referendum. "So, on one side of the stage, pro-AV, you'd have me, Ed Miliband, (Green) Caroline Lucas, (Ukip) Nigel Farage, (SNP) Alex Salmond and (Plaid Cymru) Ieuan Wyn Jones. The other side, you'd have David Cameron, (BNP) Nick Griffin and whoever leads the Communist Party. Now that tells you volumes about the very reactionary interests that are defending the indefensible."

He is furious about the way he has been targeted personally by the No campaign and believes the PM has reneged on a deal that both men would keep a low profile in the AV debate. Reflecting on Cameron's surprise decision to share a platform with a former Labour home secretary last week, Clegg remarks: "When Conservatives team up with a man as reactionary and backward-looking as John Reid, you know that the old establishment, the old elite, are just thrashing around."

Both sides of the coalition will "respect" the decision of the British public. Will he resign if the first-past-the-posters win? "Of course not. The referendum is a decision by the British people."

The Yes campaign has struggled "against a headwind of lies, misinformation and deceit", including claims made by Cameron himself that AV will require expensive counting machines and will favour extremists. Clegg believes AV can yet win the day. "People have still got, after the expenses scandal, a residual longing for something better."

This is a familiar riff from the general election trail, casting himself as the interloper disrupting the red-blue "pendulum" of British politics. "I will get opprobrium heaped on me from left and right; a vituperative attack from people who wish that life was different. Well, I'm sorry but it ain't."

The bonhomie of the Rose Garden seems a long time ago. While he and Cameron talk on a daily basis, the power-sharing deal is an "unsentimental... transaction". "I see all this stuff about how we are somehow mates. We are not. We are not there to become friends. I didn't come into this coalition government to look for friends."

Which is probably just as well. Poll ratings tumbling, the dream of electoral reform slipping through his fingers and the faintest outline of rivals positioning for the party leadership – few would swap places with Nicholas William Peter Clegg. Yet he seems never happier than when being attacked from all sides.

It has been a terrible first year in power for the Lib Dem leader, reneging on promises yet delivering others and committing military forces to Libya, the last marking a major step in his party's adjustment to the responsibilities of being in government.

"Liberal Democrats wouldn't support this if I thought what we were embarking on was some sort of slippery-slope engagement that would lead to some kind of Afghanistan or Iraq. It is utterly, utterly different." This is, he says, an example of multilateral liberal interventionism. With China and Russia not vetoing the move, he says it amounts to a "turning of the page on a long period of time after the Iraq war when I think a lot of people like me were frankly pretty pessimistic that the UN system of multilateralism could survive the battering it had received at the hands of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Tony Blair."

He says he understands those concerned about Britain's involvement but asks them to imagine "the slaughter of the lawyers, the students, the architects, the doctors, the nurses in Benghazi who Gaddafi said he was going to massacre. We would have been condemned for standing on the sidelines while this bloodbath continued." However, he claims European allies like Germany made a "mistake" in deciding "very prematurely to stand aside from what was an international multilateral effort demanded by the Arab community itself". It will remain a challenge for the EU for decades. More immediately, the pitch last week for a 4.9 per cent increase in the EU budget the former MEP dismisses as "posturing". There is "no way that's going to happen".

It is the coalition's more constructive relationship with Brussels that has angered many on the Tory right. But this is not the only area where the Lib Dems are said to be steering HMS Coalition.

Having laid claim to an office at the left-leaning IPPR think tank, moments after giving a hastily arranged speech on AV Clegg is keen to "spell out in words of one syllable" that the Lib Dems are wielding influence in government – so much so that the Tory blogosphere is "frothing at the mouth". "If you were a political expert from Mars and you didn't take your cue from the Daily Mail, you would conclude that this is, objectively speaking, a quintessentially Liberal government."

But measures like raising the income tax threshold, taxing North Sea oil firms and increasing pensions have been "completely obscured" by the political behemoth of tuition fees, which, having promised to abolish, he voted to treble. He was, he says, "stuffed politically" during the coalition talks because Cameron knew Labour would not give an inch on fees either.

He could have put off reform for a couple of years, and allowed pressure to build from the higher education institutions. "Behind closed doors and slightly behind their hands lots of vice-chancellors have said: 'ooh, very good, go and do this that and the other'. Most vice-chancellors have been frankly not the bravest souls in being straightforward with the public about the pressures that they themselves are under."

It emerged that 46 of the 70 universities that had published figures by the end of last week will demand £9,000 a year. "It won't end up like that. It really won't." The average price will fall once scholarships and increased access for poorer students are taken into account, Clegg says. Universities that want to charge "top whack" will have to "pay the consequences".

Having learnt the hard way the perils of being stuck with a politically suicidal policy, he now claims to be laying down the law to Tory MPs. "We are not going to just sign up to stuff that falls outside the coalition agreement. I am probably harder line than anybody... about making sure that Liberal Democrats don't get rolled over."

On the NHS reforms in particular, he claims "a lot of the stuff that Andrew Lansley has sought to propose, where it doesn't fall squarely within the coalition agreement, has to be subject to a lot of public debate and scrutiny". There will be "substantive changes" as a result, likely to include delaying plans to force GP consortia to take over commissioning healthcare from 2013. Despite the rumour mill claiming Lansley is on his way out, there will be no major reshuffle after the local elections. "The idea that you change the political weather by playing musical chairs in Whitehall is something I have never believed myself."

There are whispers in Westminster that some want to oust him from his seat at the top table. The veteran Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders accused Clegg of being an "opportunistic careerist" who had "irrevocably damaged" his party's image. The Lib Dem leader doesn't hesitate in slapping him down. "When things are tough in politics, you don't start turning on yourself. A lot of Lib Dems will be pretty angry that someone spends all his time blogging about us rather than the things we offer. What you don't do in the middle of a difficult task is bail out."

So he's not going anywhere. Apart from a weekend break at the seaside, with a little bit of AV campaigning which will please the troops (and, presumably, annoy wife Miriam).

"Right, I am going to pick up the kids," and off he strides. A bit of sea air and sand between his toes could help to calm some of this anger. But don't bank on it.

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