Less than five minutes out of London St Pancras, a tree has fallen on the line and is threatening to delay Nick Clegg’s journey back to Sheffield where he is due to appear at a campaign rally alongside Tim Farron, his successor as Lib Dem leader. “They couldn’t have spotted this tree before we left?” he asks. It is under 48 hours until polls open and the former deputy prime minister is engaged in one last push towards the finish line.
But it is a general election Clegg does not think should be happening. “I didn’t vote for it by the way,” he says. “I thought it was a nonsense.My party did. But I quietly stayed away. I thought, since when, when a prime minister says ‘jump’, the answer from all the rest of us is, ‘how high?’.”
In an interview with HuffPost UK, Clegg says he “totally understands” why the other eight Lib Dem MPs in the Commons voted to give Theresa May the snap election she wanted. “Once Labour had announced they would there was nothing stopping it - so why court the controversy of voting against it?
Clegg, now two years out of government, says he has a certain “carefree liberty” about how he behaves. “I was certainly not going to dignify it with my vote.”
“I still for the life of me can’t understand why Jeremy Corbyn said ‘yeah, I am up for it,” Clegg sighs, arguing Labour should have pushed for an election in the autumn or in a year’s time, if at all.
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As the “architect” of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act that was supposed to lock the electoral cycle in to five years blocks, Clegg deploys one of his favourite phrases, that he has a “slightly old fashioned” view that “opposition parties oppose” rather than giving the government “exactly what it wants”.
“The reason why the Conservatives are holding it early is they know they need to get their excuses in, their election in, before things turn sour and curdle,” Clegg says.
Clegg has just delivered a speech in London on Brexit. After the rally with Farron he will tend to campaigning in his Sheffield Hallam constituency which he is “confident but not complacent” about retaining. “I’m quite battle-hardened,” he smiles.
“I’ve never been through such a weird and increasingly unnecessary election as this one. At which there is so much at stake for the county at large and yet anything of significance is being ignored and brushed under the carpet,” he adds.
“It’s the oddest thing that you have two principle protagonists, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, just not wanting to talk about the elephant in the room. It means we will give whoever is in No.10 a mandate on Friday to kind of do what they like without any advance warning and no explanation. That’s very unhealthy in a democracy. “
LABOUR MPS MUST ‘BREAK AWAY’
Clegg is animated about the “perpetual one party rule” he sees about to grip Westminster. “The penny needs to drop in the Labour Party that it cannot win again,” he says.
He argues the combination of the SNP takeover of Scotland, Tory dominance in the south of England, the electoral system and a press which acts like a “Pretorian guard knee-capping anyone who stands in the way of the Conservatives” means the “game is up” for Labour.
“To govern again for a Labour Party is to share power in the future,” he says.
“Unless something really big changes in southern England or in Scotland, the Labour Party is no longer a vehicle for national government.”
Labour MPs, Clegg says, “have got to let go of Labour”.
“What’s going on in this campaign at the moment is it’s flattering to deceive. Everyone gets terribly excited that lots of youngsters are flocking to Corbyn’s standard, but it makes no difference to the fundamental problem, which is as long as Labour is no longer a meaningful force in Scotland and as long as you assume there no way Labour is going to beat the Tories on the south coast of England and in the Home Counties- there is no way that Labour can win again on their own account.
“Corbyn is not going to be the Messiah to deliver them to the promised land, he really isn’t.”
But the problem, he says, runs deeper than Corbyn’s leadership. “It doesn’t matter who the leader is. Even if you had Tony Blair back in his water-walking phase of the mid-to-late 1990s, I think even then they wouldn’t get back in the saddle.
Clegg says it is “obvious” what needs to happen. “It’s me describing facts.” Labour MPs “either need to do something very radical and break away and do something else” or they need to “have a successful argument for the soul of the Labour Party”.
He adds: “Until there is a critical mass of folk in the Labour Party who understand the game is up, it doesn’t matter who their leader is, they cannot under the present disposition win power again against the Conservatives.”
To govern again for a Labour Party is to share power in the future Nick Clegg
That argument for Labour’s soul could come as soon as Thursday evening. Despite the narrowing of the polls most observers expect May to secure an increased majority. “Corbyn won’t be prime minister. Labour will not get a majority,” Clegg firmly predicts.
It is what comes next, that interests him. “But will the effect of him being deemed to have had a good election mean that basically more centrist Labour MPs keep quiet? Will a ‘successful’ Corbyn, even though he has failed, be an inhibition on thoughtful brave Labour folk to do something different, or will it be the catalyst?”
It is a view shared by Vince Cable, the former Lib Dem business secretary who is hoping to recapture his Twickenham seat on Thursday. In an interview with HuffPost UK, Cable said “politics after the election may be more interesting than before it” if Corbyn refuses to quit and the Labour party “fragments”.
Clegg admits to being annoyingly “unhelpful in all these discussions about a new party” or other arrangements as he avoids nailing down the exact form he thinks any realignment should or will take.
But adds: “I probably wont even be around to play any role in it. I just think that’s what’s going to happen. If it doesn’t happen, fine, we will spend the next several decades seeing some ghastly dynastic one party administration in Whitehall.”
NO COALITION - FOR NOW
The surge in Labour’s vote share, 38% in the most recent YouGov poll, could allow Corbyn and his allies to claim victory even in defeat. Ed Miliband won just 30.4% of the vote in 2015. A vote share victory over Miliband could allow the current Labour leader to insist he has a mandate to continue.
And one key story of this campaign is UK appeared to return to an era of two party politics. The combined Labour and Tory vote share in Tuesday’s YouGov poll was 80% - muscling out the Lib Dems and Ukip. But Clegg does not think this is permanent. “There are lots breathless people in the commentariat about the return of 1950s style two party politics. I doubt it myself. I think there are just too many changes in society. The shift to individual consumerism. The collapse of class based politics is too great,” he says.
Despite his advocacy for a new anti-Tory alliance, and prediction multi-party politics is here to stay, Clegg says it is right that Farron has ruled out forming a coalition with May or Corbyn.
“I think Tim has been entirely clear. He is not ruling out coalition as a matter of principle, that would be an absurd thing for a party of pluralism to do.
“We are just ruling out the idea there are going to be any coalitions or pacts to put Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn into No.10,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised of coalition government does remerge in the next 10, 15 or 20 years. But it’s not right for us now, no.”
But why? If it was so vital for the UK’s economy that the Lib Dems “step up to the plate” in 2010 and join David Cameron’s Tories in power. Why should the party rule out out going into government with Corbyn’s Labour in an attempt to bring about a softer Brexit?
“The Labour party has chosen, and I was dismayed by this, because I know a lot of Labour MPs I have spoken to are very uncomfortable with this, but it was the Labour Party that chose to endorse Theresa May’s choices about the particularly hard uncompromising version of Brexit she is pursuing,” Clegg says.
May and Corbyn, he says, “on this fundamental architecture of Brexit” are “now indistinguishable”. He adds: “There is no remote chance the Lib Dems are going to dignify that choice.”
When the campaign began, many expected the Lib Dem’s overtly pro-Remain position would see it recapture a healthy number of the seats it lost in the 2015 collapse. Tory MPs in the South West worried the snap election would hand their seats straight back to the Lib Dems. And following the local election results on May 4 the party was briefing that it could more than double its nine MPs on June 8.
The Lib Dems insist their campaigning is targeted and the national vote share does not give a clear picture of the number of seats the party could gain. Nevertheless, with poll ratings below 10%, talk of a Lib Dem surge has subsided as the campaign draws to a close.
But Clegg defends the strategy. “I don’t think we could have done anything else. What would we do? Not talk about Brexit? That would be bizarre. You can’t conduct yourself in politics minute-by-minute with your finger on the pulse of opinion polls. You have to go from what you think sets you apart from your opponents and what you believe to be right,” he says.
Clegg says Lib Dem revival is a longer term project, ading it would be unrealistic to expect a massive increase in seats from its near wipe out in 2015.
“I never expected that remotely,” he says. “I just don’t think a recovery from the drubbing we had last time, you don’t do it one go. This whole election has been timed to flatter and benefit the Tories, not least at our expense. She was very keen to take us and other opposition parties by surprise.”
And Clegg was surprised. “I believed her. She was so explicit about not holding the election so I was very surprised. And also because I couldn’t understand why you would hold an election when the clock is ticking on the Brexit negotiations. We have now wasted close to two months of valuable negotiating time while we canter around this electoral course at her behest.”
One problem the Lib Dems have run into is even some Remain voters are resigned to Brexit. The party’s policy of holding a second referendum on the eventual deal has not kept the Remain flame burning as brightly as many expected. But Clegg says even for those people who do not want to talk about Brexit in the campaign, “they are going to get very animated about it pretty quickly after this election when they see the utopia promised to them by these Brexit pied pipers, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, is not materialising”.
He adds, perhaps much in hope as in resignation: “So as ever with the Lib Dems maybe we will get deferred recognition as much as instant recognition.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if those people telling us now on the doorstep, ‘hang on a minute haven’t we had the referendum, isn’t it time to get on with it’, are exactly the people who will come back in a year’s time and say, ‘this is outrageous, it’s not what we were promised’. You can’t always pick your time. We have to fight the election at the time it takes place.”
MEMORIES OF THERESA
Clegg is helping his party fight an election against a Tory prime minister he sat alongside every week in cabinet for five years during her time as home secretary and his as deputy prime minister. And he is not impressed. May is “clueless” about Brexit and is running a government that is “almost willfully economically illiterate”.
“I can hand on heart can not remember a single occasion in five years when Theresa May, in my ear shot, ever said anything of interest in, or interest about, the economy. Not once. It is rather revealing. It was a government defined by our economic policies. For better or worse,” he says.
The Conservatives have run an overtly presidential campaign based on the premise May needs an increased mandate to help her negotiate with Brussels.
But Clegg says May “has no idea” what she is doing when it comes to exiting the EU. “This is one of the most clueless governments in modern British politics. I think they haven’t got a clue. I am really gobsmacked that after a year, David Davis triumphantly announces to the nation he has generated the sum total of 100 pages of notes on Brexit.”
“I am not entirely surprised. Because they suffer from a mixture of hubris and utopianism about Brexit. This very odd combination of a Whitehall system that was wholly unprepared for Brexit, a bunch of real hardcore headbangers in the Conservative Party and parts of the press who just think Brexit is some Holy Grail and once its achieved the sun will shine, the traffic will flow, mortgage payments will decline and everyone will be happy.
“And you have a prime minister who is rather technocratic politician who doesn’t really have much peripheral vision. So hasn’t got a sense of the bigger historical context that this big decision is taking place in. All of the things create this odd mixture of cluelessness and arrogance.”
May, Clegg says, is a “very tight lipped quite narrowly focused politician” who is “serious”. He adds “she is dutiful, she immerses herself in details”.
But he says “what you need at a time like this when huge decisions are being taken is someone who is prepared to think big. I don’t really get the impression either she or her team think big.
“They are quite tactical, technocratic, controlling somewhat secretive. Which were very good skills when you are running the security establishment in Whitehall. You cant run a government, you can’t lead a country and you certainly can’t persuade 27 other recalcitrant EU leaders of your point of view with that.”
Clegg says May, and Corbyn’s, lack of economic curiosity will be their undoing. “Almost all my political predictions are wrong but on this one I can pretty safely predict that what will engulf whoever is in power after Friday will be the mismanagement of the British economy. And yet we are not talking about it at all. I can guarantee you in this next parliament that is what will turn the British people against whoever is in power.”
OUTLASTING CAMERON AND OSBORNE
Quitting immediately after an election defeat is now expected. Miliband did it. Cameron did it after the referendum. And Clegg did it. Does he ever regret resigning as Lib Dem leader the day after the 2015 general election? “No. Of course I don’t. It was absolutely the right thing to do,” he says quickly.
“If you are at the helm when you are doing these difficult things in coalition you’ve got to front it up and not shirk from it and not pretend it’s someone else’s fault. Lots of my friends said I strapped too many controversial policy bombs to my own body, maybe I did, but I quietly thought you can’t lead without leading.”
Clegg then reveals the “only anti-European thing you will ever get me to say”.
“I really don’t like this European tradition where no one resigns from anything,” he exclaims. “Nothing. It’s amazing. They are engulfed by countless scandals and nothing happens.
“I just think if something goes pear shaped on your watch, whether it’s your fault or not is Irrelevant. I took lots of hits for the team in coalition and I thought that was right.”
He also can not help but dismiss the importance of Steve Hilton, the former Cameron adviser who this week said May should resign in the wake of the London Bridge attacks over police cuts. “I never could take anything Steve Hilton said seriously, either inside or outside government. It’s such an extremely infantile and silly little thing to say. He lobs these portentous observations in from his hideout in California. I don’t care what Steve Hilton thinks. And I think it is the most bizarre thing to say two days before the election,” he says.
During the campaign, HuffPost UK has been conducting focus groups across the country to gauge the mood of voters. At one, in the battleground of Watford, Lib Dem turned Tory voters were keen on “trustworthy” Clegg and said they wanted him back as party leader. Clegg does not rule a return out, but he laughs and quickly pours cold water on the idea. “I don’t think you can reheat old coffee in politics. I think Tim is doing a great job in very difficult circumstances,” he says.
I was very keen not to sort of just bugger off after the last election Nick Clegg
After stepping down as leader, Clegg retreated from frontline politics for a while. However in October of last year, he agreed to serve as the party’s Brexit spokesman. Does he enjoy the return to the frontbench?
“Ummm,” he thinks for a while. “I’m not sure enjoying is the right word.”
“I have the great luxury of being at a stage in my time in politics where I am not desperate to chase headlines. I have long given up caring what Paul Dacre says about me. I am not trying to prove myself.
“I am enjoying, I have to say, the freedom of just really being able to say what I think and particularly about something I care about immensely which is the future of our country in Europe.”
He adds: “I am no longer restrained. So there is sort of carefree liberty, I guess.”
Clegg led his party into the last election with 57 MPs. It emerged with just eight. Some saw Clegg’s survival in Sheffield Hallam as a cruel twist, but he insists he was pleased to retain his seat. “Oh god yeah,” he says.
“I was very keen not to sort of just bugger off after the last election. I didn’t want to just slink away with my tail between my legs. I was very distressed to see the Lib Dems treated very unfairly in the run up to the last election.
After a period away from the cameras, Clegg said he “wanted to play a role in supporting my successor Tim and have a role in getting the party back on its feet”.
He adds: “There was much discussion a year ago whether the Lib Dems were a viable political party or not. You now hear about whether we are not going to do as well as we think, but you don’t really hear that so much. Not least because of the huge influx of new members and the by-election victory in Richmond.”
Of the four men who arguably ran the coalition government, the Quad of Cameron, George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Clegg, only Clegg remains in parliament.
Alexander, the former Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, lost his seat in 2015 and now works for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Cameron and Osborne both quit parliament. “I wouldn’t have want to do a Cameron or Osborne,” Clegg says.
“The four of us for better or worse dominated that government, certainly on all the key policy and economic decisions. I find myself, as the one who in many ways is least interested in day to day party politics, to be the one who is still in parliament.
“I’m much less obsessed about politics than Cameron and Osborne are. They just absolutely obsessed by it. They live and breathe it.”
But Clegg says he “understands” why Cameron left the Commons. “He had been prime minister. You have this successor who is clearly determined to undo some of the things he wanted to do. Why stick around?”
Do the pair still talk? “We texted each other a while back,” he reveals. “I haven’t spoken to him since we had a short breakfast together some months ago. And I think I’ve only seen him once since I left office. But we have each other’s email and mobile phone.”
As for Osborne’s new job as editor of the Evening Standard, Clegg observes the former chancellor is “turning the editorial pages into a soap box for his own views and that has potential merit but some pitfalls.
“Making a newspaper very much an extrapolation of your own particular views on stuff is ok as long as those views don’t become too narrow,” he says.
Two years out of power, Clegg says he would prefer to still be office. “I liked taking decisions and I liked doing things that were right for the country. Would I prefer to be in government than not? Of course I would.”
But he adds: “I don’t hanker after past glories. I didn’t expect to be deputy prime minister when I set out in politics. I think I did a pretty good job. I think the history books will judge the coalition government, I hope, pretty favourably.
“If you are being vilified from both right and left of course it takes it s toll. Mud sticks. And boy did they throw a lot of it at us. Particularly me. You get tarnished. You pick up quite a lot of damage along the way.”
Clegg made it to the campaign event with Farron. But not before his train, as it pulled out of Derby, ran promptly into another tree.