Let Clegg be Clegg (just not toooo much)

by Stephen Tall on April 10, 2011

If, like me, you’re an admirer of Nick Clegg — his grit, honesty and openness — there will have been plenty to admire this week. If, like me, you occasionally despair of Nick Clegg — the frankness can turn into a gaffe — there will have been plenty to make you despair this week.

First of all, the Best of Clegg…

As Nicholas Watt notes in the Guardian, Nick has been ‘finding his feet’, and ‘starting to show in public what he has always claimed in private – that he stands up to Cameron’. This has been clear from the Lib Dem pressure to modify the Coalition’s plans for the NHS, Nick’s personal support for fairer votes, and the announcement of his social mobility strategy (notwithstanding the predictable sniping).

And then there’s the other bit of Nick Clegg…

Frankly, I don’t give a toss about the media’s snarky digs at Nick for happily confessing in his interview with Jemima Khan in the New Statesman to “crying regularly to music”. Nor do I have any time for those gutless commentators whose flip ‘man-up’ advice to Nick ignores his very real and human concerns at the impact his job, and the unpopularity that’s accompanied it, is having on his children. As Olly Grender notes in her New Statesman blog:

I had a chat last week with someone at editoral level at the Daily Mail. I asked a simple question: isn’t it the case that, whatever the Lib Dems do, whether you agree with them or not, you are likely to praise the Tories for the policy, but not Nick Clegg? I was assured that my assumption was entirely accurate. … Clegg could walk on water right now and the Daily Mail would see it as a failure or a blunder.

That the media has it in for Nick is obvious — but it does kinda make it even more important that Nick avoid self-inflicted wounds, too. And there is one very obvious clanger in his Staggers’ interview: “I didn’t even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees.”

True, it was not one of the party’s top four campaign priorities during the election — but the pledge and the photos speak for themselves. For Nick to attempt to downplay the significance of the party’s anti-fees stance is faintly ludicrous, the more so as a media-handler was ever-present to prevent, as Ms Khan herself notes, her best attempts ‘to get him to say the wrong thing’.

How to reconcile the Two Cleggs?

I think there are three things to recognise.

First, that Nick won’t change, nor should he. Much of what I’ve always admired about him is his easy, open intelligence, his willingness to think hard and seriously about an issue. (I just wish, very occasionally, he’d think a little harder before he speaks.)

Secondly, though, that — as Olly points out — no matter how careful Nick is, what he says or how he says it, there are chunks of the media (notably the Mail and Telegraph) that will twist and distort to suit their own agenda.

And thirdly, that beleaguered as Nick might sometimes feel, the public does not mutely adopt the media’s prejudices. In her interview, Ms Khan tells an illuminating anecdote:

A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: “I couldn’t resist such a unique opportunity to say, ‘Stick With It!’ The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it’s tough but it’s very necessary. All the best.” … He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, “as if it’s a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg”.

The media narrative is that Nick is the most unpopular politician in Britain. As I’ve pointed out before, that’s not true: most Tory voters and a majority of Lib Dems rate him as doing a good job; Labour voters do appear to dislike him. So it is not that Nick is unpopular; it’s that he’s divisive.

For a politician, that’s not all bad. At least it means people have an opinion. Eighteen months ago, Nick’s popularity ratings were higher, but that was a sign of indifference, of powerlessness, not of strength. Nick has often spoken of his liberal, British values: tolerance and justice. There are other values, too: respect for tenacity, and a liking for the underdog to have its day.

In other words: stick with it, Nick.