At the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton this week, the party’s Home Affairs spokesman Nick Clegg made an impassioned speech in defence of liberal values, PinkNews.co.uk’s political correspondent Tony Grew interviewed Clegg earlier in the summer, and explains why he sees him as a future leader.
Charismatic. Articulate. Passionate. Crowd-pleasing. Funny. Not the usual qualities one expects in Liberal Democrats.
They are more usually thought of as nice, unconfrontational, consensus building dreamers.
The appeal of Nick Clegg, who burst onto the Westminster scene a mere 17 months ago, is that he appears to combine all these qualities and more.
Since winning Sheffield Hallam in the 2005 general election, the39-year-old has made a major impression on the Liberal Democrats in parliament and across the country.
He was initially appointed as a Foreign Affairs spokesman by Charles Kennedy, a sensible appointment for a former MEP who speaks five languages. He represented the East Midlands from 1999 to 2004.
He rejects the assertion that the Brussels parliament is boring: “I look back on my time in the European Parliament with enormous nostalgia and regard it as pleasurable and formative time.
“The thing that people in the Westminster village forget is that the European Parliament has become an extremely important legislative body.
“You could argue now that the average MEP has considerably more influence over the shape of laws in this land than the vast bulk of MPs.
“It’s very much a law making body which contrasts with the political pyrotechnics of Westminster which is more of a politically dramatic place.
“If you are interested in how law is made, scrutinised and improved, or at times rejected, there are few more interesting places than the European Parliament.”
Clegg was no stranger to Europe. He was educated at the highly regarded private Westminster School, and went on to Robinson College, Cambridge.
He took post-graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota and the College of Europe in Brussels. After training as a journalist in New York, he joined the European Commission in 1994.
The high-flyer then became senior adviser to Sir Leon Brittan, the Thatcher-appointed Vice President of the European Commission.
Despite this pedigree, Clegg was a latecomer to party politics. He says student politics left him cold: “I only developed, if you like, in a partisan fashion, a lot later than many of the colleagues I know in the LibDems.
“It was a switch I guess in my professional life, when I just felt that I had strong opinions on a number of things and that maybe it was time for me to put my money where my mouth is and not continually hurl abuse at the television set, but try to make my own views known in the public realm.
“I had always voted for the LibDems, I was a member as soon as I became interested in party politics, for a number of reasons. I am a passionate internationalist, extremely interested in civil liberties and human rights, in the way in which this country is governed.
“The LibDems are the only party of radical and far-reaching reform, I like the sincerity with which we talk about devolution and decentralisation, I like the fact that we are a party free of dominance from any particular interest group, whether it’s the unions or big business.”
It is a mark of his extraordinary talent that by January this year, when Charles Kennedy stood down, MPs and party activists were approaching Clegg to stand as leader. He cannily refused, just as he refuses to discuss whether or not he will succeed Ming Campbell, or when.
He was appointed to the high-profile Home Affairs brief by Ming, to replace the disgraced Mark Oaten, and has proved his mettle in the job.
In parliament, the LibDems can often be a marginal voice, barracked by Labour and the Tories alike.
Clegg has been an effective Commons performer, holding Charles Clarke and John Reid to account over the multiple failures of the Home Office on everything from asylum to terrorism legislation.
Surely even a seasoned MEP would find standing up in the House of Commons as a frontbench spokesman a little scary?
“I think the sheer intensity of the House in full flight is pretty difficult to prepare yourself for. It has its pros and its cons.
“It is not always the place that is most conducive to balanced considered argument, but it does show up weak or strong arguments for what they are in a fairly brutal fashion.”
The material he had to work with certainly helped:
“It was pretty intimidating the first couple of occasions. The first few times I was against David Davis and Charles Clarke I was lucky in the sense that I was on very secure territory, as the spokesman of the only party to maintain our principled objection to ID cards.
“Remember the Conservatives inexplicably at the last minute supported the legislation. I was lucky that I was able to find my feet on an issue that I felt very strongly about, it was an issue I had been following for some time.”
Perhaps his finest hour in the last parliamentary session came with the debate he secured on the UK/US extradition treaty. MPs from all sides listened to his principled comments about the unfair nature of that treaty, and many praised his efforts to raise the issue in the House.
Let us be clear about just how charisma Nick Clegg is. Not since the days of Paddy Ashdown has there been a Liberal Democrat with such an electrifying effect on his own party.
The start of our conversation was delayed by over ten minutes. Just trying to get through the café at Portcullis House and into a seat, it seemed everyone wanted a word with Nick, to introduce him to their visiting constituents or have a word about policy.
Just as we were about to start, LibDem party president and 23-year veteran of the House of Commons Simon Hughes interrupted to go over the wording of a press release on sentencing with him. The boy has star written all over him.
Clegg continues to be a loyal supporter of the party’s current leader, who has faced sustained press attention because of his age and slightly stiff manner.
Like many Liberal Democrats, he sees Campbell’s difference as an asset: “Ming’s appeal to the electorate at a time when everyone’s heads are being turned by the somewhat cosmetic charms of David Cameron will prove even more overwhelming by the time of the general election than it does now. He will be able to bring a degree of credibility and gravitas to his job that I think will escape Cameron.”
Clegg is the same age as Cameron, and in his keynote speech he took time to mock the new Tory leader as small-c Conservative.
Yet the Cameron message of ‘hug-a-hoodie’ could provide the third party with a rare opportunity to out-manoeuvre the Tories on one of their core strengths, law and order.
“Intellectually, I refute the idea that because we are the leading proponents of civil liberties and human rights in British politics that that somehow neuters us as a party speaking out about crime, anti-social behaviour, the rights of victims.
Ming surprised many people in the party by saying very bluntly and very boldly that we will continue to champion human rights but we will also be champions of a criminal justice system that works, and that doesn’t let criminals off.”
Clegg is also talking tough on the Home Office, which he feels has become too big to be handled effectively by one cabinet minister: “I think the Home Office now needs to be broken up.
“There is an overwhelming case to look at the model used in other European countries, and in North America as well, where you have a justice ministry dealing with judicial issues, you have another ministry dealing with security issues.
“You make sure that quasi-judicial functions such as the processing of asylum applications are hived off altogether into a separate agency such as you have in Canada, in other words you de-politicise those areas.”
Clegg also thinks that the government’s proposals for ID cards will be an issue for voters once the cards start to be introduced. Many of the voters have failed to grasp what biometric identification actually means.
“The sheer scope and power of an ID database which will be capable of storing a level of information which no ID card I know of anywhere in the world has so far required.
“The government has grotesquely underestimated the cost of ID cards and the complexity of the IT systems.
“They are dangerously underestimating how much resistance there will be amongst the British people when they are asked to go down to some office somewhere and give their fingerprints, give their iris scans, give up a lot of information that is going to be held on a database.
“And then pay through the nose for the privilege of having that intrusion in their private lives. I think there is a long way to go before we can say that ID cards are here to stay.”
So there are some of the key battlegrounds that Nick Clegg will be fighting on up until the next election.
When teased about being exactly the same age as the still-wet behind the ears Tory leader, he responds: “I don’t get up every morning and compare myself to David Cameron, I promise you!”
Clegg recently conceded even he is bored of constantly being talked up as a successor to Ming Campbell.
After his outstanding speech to the Liberal Democrat conference this week, it is a question he will have reconciled himself to being asked in every interview. When we asked, he gave PinkNews.co.uk the standard response:
“I have so much to get on with as a Home Affairs spokesman, I am forever being asked to speculate about our party and the future, for me it is just essential that we do what I think we do best, which is to provide a liberal alternative to the electorate.
“Come the next general election I think with Cameron peddling his slightly insincere wares and Brown not really resiling from the authoritarian instinct in the Labour party, the role for the Liberal Democrats will be even more pressing than it has been in the last few elections.”