I remember back in around 2003 my friend Duncan Brack, a leading figure in backroom LibDem politics, told me about a Liberal Democrat MEP called Nick Clegg. “He’ll be LibDem leader one day,” said Duncan. Two years later Nick Clegg swapped the European Parliament for Westminster and at the end of 2007 he succeeded Menzies Campbell as LibDem leader, narrowly beating his former MEP colleague, Chris Huhne. Two and and a half years later, he led the LibDems into government for the first time in 80 years. Yet only eight years Cleggmania has turned into Cleggophobia. He’s become a bit of a ‘non person’ both to many in the LibDems and to much of the country.
Being in government was a bittersweet experience for Nick Clegg and his party. He became the anti-poster boy for students over the tuition fees issue. So unpopular did he become that the Yes to AV campaign wanted nothing to do with him. His presence in the Yes to AV campaign was regarded as toxic by the pro AV people.
I wrote in 2011…
He out negotiated the Conservatives and secured a huge amount of the LibDem manifesto in the coalition agreement. Indeed, quite a lot of it has already been implemented, but you’d never know it because Clegg and his colleagues have been so inept at telling us. Instead, they concentrate on how they have supposedly stopped the wicked Tories from laying waste to the economy. It’s as if their message has become “Vote for us, we’re quite good at stopping the Tories being Tories.” You want to pull the dummy from their mouths and shout ‘Diddums’. The sainted Vince Cable bleats on about how the Tories are “ruthless, calculating and tribal,” without the faintest hint of irony in his voice. Has he never observed a LibDem by election campaign? Labour and Conservative supporters still remember the LibDem campaign manual which urged their candidates to “stir wickedly, act shamelessly”? A friend of mine in Norfolk opened the door to LibDem canvasser last week. “I’m fed up with the lies your MPs have told,” he said. “Ah, but we don’t lie at local level, “ said the LibDem activist without a hint of a smile.
David Cameron rode to the LibDem leader’s rescue more often than he probably cares to remember. He repeatedly came to his deputy’s rescue – much to the irritation of his backbenchers – and offered him a bauble, a little crumb of comfort at a difficult time. He repeatedly turned a blind eye when LibDem ministers went off message, while at the same time coming down on his own rebellious backbenchers like a ton of bricks. Vince Cable got away with blue murder. He was in the government, but not of the government. There were many times when the Deputy Prime Minister would have happily rid himself of this turbulent LibDem priest.
Part of Clegg’s problem was that the job of Deputy Prime Minister was not a real job despite having all the trappings of one. Clegg’s only real policy role was to be in charge of political and constitutional reform. That didn’t work out too well.
The truth is that the LibDems had to go into coalition in 2010. If they hadn’t, they would have become a total electoral irrelevance. Initially, Clegg played his cards well. As I said above, he outnegotiated the Tories both in terms of policies in the coalition agreement and the outrageous number of LibDem ministers.
But in the end their biggest weakness was this. Having got into bed with the Tories there was nowhere else for them to go. They had made their bed and had to continue to lie in it. They knew that if they were to leave the coalition they would become the laughing stock of British politics. David Cameron knew it and so did Nick Clegg. At one point according to David Laws, in his outstanding book ‘Coalition’, Clegg seriously discussed stepping down because he felt he personally had become so toxic to the LibDem cause.
To many people’s slight surprise, Nick Clegg hung on to his Sheffield Hallam seat at the 2015 election, even though his party was reduced from 55 seats to a mere 8. But in June 2017 his political career met its maker, and he was out of parliament. The pain and anguish that was writ large on his face at his count showed the inner turmoil he was going through. It was a very difficult time. He spent a very difficult few months coming to terms with what had happened. he put on weight and seemed listless, lacking any sense of direction or what he might do in future. He became Brexit spokesman for the LibDems but without a seat in parliament it was a difficult role to fulfill. He wrote a book - not a full memoir, but merely entitled ‘Politics’. He started a podcast on dealing with ‘anger’. But at the age of 51 you could tell that he was desperate for some sort of meaning to his working life. This was put on hold for sometime when his eldest son was diagnosed with Leukemia. Thankfully, he’s making a full recovery, but it was naturally a very emotional time for the Clegg family.
On Friday we were all taken by surprise to learn that Nick Clegg had been appointed Head of Global Affairs for Facebook. He starts work this week and in January the entire Clegg family will move to Silicon Valley. His wife Myriam is giving up her job.
Upon hearing the news, I tweeted this…
I for one wish @nick_clegg well in this new role. He's still a youngish man and for people to criticise him for taking it says more about them than it does about him. He will be a loss to our political debate. https://t.co/5mrsI3mR9j— Iain Dale (@IainDale) October 20, 2018
The reaction to this tweet was one I might have expected if I had suggested that the firstborn of every family should be killed. “Loser”. “Traitor”. “Tosser”. Barely anyone had a good word to say about Nick Clegg. I was a “sellout” for wishing him well. I was obviously a “Remainer in disguise”.
Well, I stand by every word. We don’t have many big characters in our political debates at the moment. I might not agree with Nick Clegg on Brexit or other things, but I always respected him - and still do. He is one of the nicest politicians I have come across and a man without side. What you see is what you get, albeit he is quite sweary in private!
I remember having a chat with him at a LibDem conference - I think it was in 2009 - and although I can’t remember the exact context of the conversation one thing he said has stuck with me ever since.
You have to take risks. What’s the point of being in politics if you don’t take a few risks.
Taking the job with Facebook is without doubt a risk, although it’s a risk mitigated by a salary mooted to be around £1 million a year. Clegg has said some fairly disobliging things about Facebook in the past, all of which were repeated in the weekend papers. But there’s no doubt, it’s a massive job and one which he should excel at. He’s been hired because of his political experience, not just in the UK but in Brussels too, but he’s also been hired because of his personal qualities.
So yes, I do wish him and his family well. They will all be excited by what lies ahead of them, but they will also be a little daunted too. Who wouldn’t be?
His detractors can hurl as much abuse as they like but Nick Clegg is man enough to ignore them and bid them a fond farewell as he flies off to San Fransisco in January. And good luck to him.