31 Mar 2015

Nick Clegg, ‘Yoda’ Ashdown and the future of coalitions

Nick Clegg never thought he would get into power in 2010. He was convinced his party would take one more election to get there and he told anyone who would listen that he planned to enter coalition in 2015 with 100 or more MPs. That plan was ambushed by the results of the 2010 election and David Cameron’s decision to offer full-fat coalition.

For Nick Clegg, it was an emotional roller-coaster of a morning, well captured in the Channel 4 drama Coalition. After the love-in that followed the first debate, he watched the two main parties fight back and on the night saw his tally of MPs actually fall.

I well remember him arriving back at Lib Dem headquarters in the early morning of the day after the election. Party staffers were applauding to raise the mood but his head was bowed. I even saw him bite his bottom lip as the emotion got to him. He didn’t think David Cameron would go for coalition – but that’s exactly what the Tory leader was planning a few streets away from where Nick Clegg stood.

Coalition

Bertie Carvel (foreground) as Nick Clegg in the Channel 4 drama Coalition

In our profile of Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader acknowledges that he and his party were pretty “tight-lipped” about differences with the Tories in the early part of the coalition. Those who wanted to differentiate more were slapped down. Coalition negotiator and former energy secretary Chris Huhne tells us Nick Clegg confused what the role of deputy PM was and saw himself as more of a “split the difference” or “chairman” role when he actually needed to be more feisty projecting his party’s identity.

Nick Clegg says he had no choice, that people forget how much doom and gloom there was about coalition and its viability. He says no coalition partner will ever again have to do what he did and hold back on opinions to project harmony and convince doubters about coalition. He has performed a public service, breaking through a path for future coalitions. Whether he will be part of one is another question.

Paddy Ashdown, who feels he was made to look like Yoda in the Channel 4 Coalition drama, told us of Nick Clegg’s dark nights of the soul when he has wondered if he is the problem, dragging down his party, and should stand down.

Lord “Yoda” Ashdown said he particularly well remembered the day after last May’s European and local elections, when even more Lib Dem councillors were rolled up and the party’s representation in the European parliament was down to one. Nick Clegg, when he eventually came to the cameras after an eerily long delay, looked like a man who had been under enormous strain.

The Nick Clegg you meet now seems at peace with himself. If the Lib Dems go down to a horrible defeat he will feel he could do no other. He had to go into coalition and has beaten a path for future Lib Dem coalitions (even if there isn’t one this time round). He believes his party had no future as an agitating fringe party that never stepped up to the plate, and he has given it a basis for future growth.

He even tells me off for repeating some of his own MPs’ fears and says he hopes I’ll have the decency to apologise to him in person after the election if the Lib Dems do better than predicted. I will, if the MPs I was quoting promise to come with me – Nick Clegg looked unusually fierce in this part of the interview.

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