Nick Clegg: 'We have put back cabinet meetings so we can take our children to school'

The coalition's honeymoon is over. But the deputy PM's relationship with David Cameron is stronger than ever, he tells Nigel Morris

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:46

After a weekend handling the first crisis to engulf the coalition Government, Nick Clegg spent Bank Holiday Monday dealing with more domestic matters.

Just before midnight on Sunday he was still on the telephone to Danny Alexander, who had been hurriedly promoted to the Treasury following David Laws's dramatic departure from the fledgling administration.

But Monday had been set aside for family time in the Clegg household. He took his young sons to a nearby funfair, and spent the evening with his wife, Miriam, at Covent Garden Opera House to celebrate her birthday. Inside the couple's smart white stuccoed Georgian house in south-west London there is no visible evidence that it is home to the Deputy Prime Minister.

There are no red boxes in sight. Instead there is Lego – lots of it – covering the floor and table in the conservatory.

Mr Clegg, dressed in a casual shirt and jeans, insists he is determined to keep family life and government work as separate as humanly possible.

In this aim he has found an ally in the Prime Minister, who is also the father of small children. Both agreed to change the timing of a cabinet meeting to fit in with the school run. "I try – I haven't entirely succeeded yet – as much as I can to take the kids to school," he says before adding: "To walk them to school."

"In a sense I'm very lucky because David Cameron has young children. We agreed the other day we were going to slightly delay the start of the cabinet meeting to allow us both to take our children to school, which is a reflection – if any was needed – of the fact that we are both of the same generation in this new politics." He adds that he is "very rigid in saying 'no' to endless dinner invitations, to try to make sure I'm back home regularly to put the kids to bed".

Mr Clegg admits he did not know his political partner at all before they carved out Britain's first coalition administration since the Second World War. He still does not describe Mr Cameron, who once said the Liberal Democrat leader was his "favourite political joke", as a friend, instead preferring "partners in government" to describe their relationship.

The Deputy Prime Minister admits that they are yet to settle into a regular working pattern – not least because Mr Cameron has been busy visiting Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Paris and Berlin.

But he adds: "We speak every day, if not several times a day – it's a very strong working partnership. We have each other's mobiles, BlackBerries, emails.

"We work quickly – we are able to arrive at difficult decisions quickly. We understand the constraints we are both working under and we're very pragmatic and workmanlike about the fact our partnership is absolutely essential in making sure the coalition works."

He will be sitting alongside Mr Cameron today as the Tory leader takes his first Prime Minister's Question Time, but is not optimistic that it will mark an end to "Punch and Judy politics".

He says: "The architectural antagonism of the chamber, the way that people are banked up against each other, will ensure there is plenty of yah-boo across the despatch box."

Mr Clegg, who was on a brief weekend break with his wife in Paris when the Laws crisis broke, describes the downfall of his Liberal Democrat colleague as a "tragedy". But he insists there could be a route back into the office for him – provided Mr Laws wants to return and provided he is given a clean bill of health by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, who is examining the Yeovil MP's expenses claims.

Mr Clegg discloses that Mr Laws, who he describes as a very close friend, has already briefed his successor, Mr Alexander, on the task before him as he wields the spending axe.

"That's a demonstration of David Laws's maturity and courage that even as he's dealing with a lot of difficult personal issues he is able to work so co-operatively with Danny in making sure there's a smooth handover.

"But it's also [a demonstration] of the urgency I feel, David Cameron feels, we all feel, in making sure we don't miss a step in setting out our stall as we will do in the Budget about how we can help repair the immense damage to our public finances."

He even claims the crisis has strengthened the coalition because it had to pull together in unexpected adversity. "The key thing is the Government remains absolutely on track in what we set out to do in our coalition agreement and that is unaffected by the weekend's events. If anything, in a strange kind of way, the internal cohesion of a government – of any government, never mind a coalition – is often strengthened by how it reacts to unexpected setbacks and I think that is probably true in this case as well."

He promises that his party will not be squeezed out of the Westminster limelight by its bigger coalition partner, revealing that he will face half an hour of questions at Deputy Prime Minister's Question Time every few weeks and promising he will make himself regularly available to Commons select committees.

"I am very keen the Liberal Democrat voice should continue to be heard in Parliament and it will be," he insists.

"Of course people have concerns, people want to make sure our values and principles are properly reflected in the way we now govern." Mr Clegg seems resigned to problems crowding in on the coalition as it grapples with balancing the nation's books.

"Things are going to get tough and there is going to be a lot of pressure on the coalition because we couldn't have thought of a more difficult set of circumstances from the previous government.

"We are trying to balance many things all at once, we're trying to square many circles all at once. That is going to be difficult. And there is a natural idiom in the way politics is portrayed which will constantly encourage stories in the press about splits and tensions."

But he insists that the divisions between the coalition parties – characterised last week by the diverging views towards raising capital gains tax between the Liberal Democrat left and the Tory right – can be a source of strength in an era of "new politics".

Mr Clegg says: "That is one of the unintended consequences of coalition government that you will have more open and public debate. I think over time people will recognise that as a strength because it will lead to more transparent politics."

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