In the ITV leaders’ debate on April 2nd, there looked to be a real needle between Nick Clegg and David Cameron. Is there?
“Oh, well” Clegg shrugs, as his big yellow battlebus rolls through Wiltshire to a wheel factory. “I am perplexed and angry about the course the Conservatives have embarked on… We struggled to find £8 billion of [public spending] cuts, so the idea that you can merrily find another £12 billion!”
It appeared at times as if they actually hated each other. “It’s not hate; it’s not personal like or dislike.” But it looked on TV as if the relationship is over. Surely he couldn’t he work with Cameron again?
“Of course, I could. Look, it’s odd that you ask that. Coalition is about parties that, in our case, strongly disagree. I didn’t go into poli- tics to find mates.”
Irritated by the feeling that the Liberal Democrat Party has “taken disproportionate blame for the bad things without proportionate credit for the good things”, Clegg is keen to stress the influence he believes he has had. On broadcasting policy, for example: “I personally intervened to make sure the BBC got a proper five- year deal rather than the stop-gap funding some people wanted to introduce.”
An American campaign specialist once told me that politicians have to be abnormal to reach the top and they only differ in that some are better at impersonating ordinary human beings than others.
If so, then Clegg’s impression is Rory Bremner class: in the curtained alcove at the back of the bus, he seems laid-back and personable, chatting as easily about literature and football as about politics.
He is tough, unlike most of the population in that he rarely watches TV: “I read instead. I pretty much always have a novel on the go.” His current book is All That Is by the American author James Salter.
When Clegg was 19, he wrote a novel himself. Inspired by Gabriel García Márquez, it was a punctuation-free exercise in Latin American magic realism: “I found it the other day, actually. It’s well locked away and will never see the light of day.”
And you’d meet few ordinary Britons who can watch French, Spanish and Dutch TV without subtitles, although Clegg is becoming less multi- lingual: “My German’s gone rusty, which I regret. It’s a beautiful language.”
A post-election coalition with Ukip can, then, probably be ruled out.