“Um,” says The Man Himself, contemplating the jam which is about to drop from his Krispy Kreme doughnut all over his leadership-winning trousers, “I think I might have to put this down somewhere. Sorry, that’s really rude, isn’t it…”
Nonono! It’s your party! And today of all days, we can’t have the shiny new leader going on television with jam down himself. Nick’s a nice guy – this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has met him, but I hadn’t, and he was very much as nice as I had been led to believe. If nothing else for finding time on his day of victory to see a bunch of self-indulgent ramblers who love the sound of their own voices, in between Jeremy Paxman and Nick Robinson (oh . . .)
Jam threat dispensed with, we blast once round the room with questions under the watchful button eye of a fluffy toy, and gosh! (to coin a Cleggism) it’s invigorating. I’ve said this elsewhere but I really do think these events are a good idea. I can see how, at its best, it could be a really productive two-way process. We get to put rather more (one hopes) intelligent and nuanced questions to our guys than the kind of flaccid heads-I-win-tails-you-lose fare on offer from most of the media. And they get a friendly, informed audience to practise inspirational stuff on, and a informational superhighway conduit to the Citizen Readers of the People’s Republic (I’ve made you all Honorary Citizens, didn’t I say?)
“That early momentum . . .”
He starts by contemplating his immediate task, that window of opportunity a new leader has to lay out his leadership style without its being distorted by the media. Nick knows it isn’t going to be as nice as he is. Benefit of the doubt from the media? “It doesn’t feel like it,” he says wryly, having just come from a drubbing at the hands of the Paxomaniac (which I think, having now seen it, he actually won hands down).
Is he looking forward to PMQs? Yup. To get it out of the way. His conviction that a few minutes’ infantile jibing on a Wednesday afternoon is the wrong way to go about politics is very clear, very heartfelt. We all know, of course, which twinkle-toed star performer he will be compared with. The media, as he says, will be interested only in delivering the line that he has fallen at the first hurdle. But he just doesn’t rate it as an exercise. Will he make mistakes? Of course! He’ll have good days as well – of course! As so often when listening to Clegg, I find myself hoping that someone will ask him “what he thinks” about xyz. Because if you do that, you get pure gold. But of course, no-one is going to invite him to rubbish the institutionalised shouty plonker contest that is PMQs, so with Chris Huhne’s now-famous elbows in mind (has he insured them, like Ava Gardner’s legs?) I hope Nick finds a way to rubbish it all the same.
“What was it he said? ‘Progressive consensus’?”
I am much more reassured by the response to my question about defeating the inevitable Cameron comparisons and, in particular, deflating this coalition notion at an early date. What I was looking for was the instant snap-awareness that this must be shot down in flames, and fast, and that’s what I got. I’m going to paraphrase it as nearly as I can remember it, and I think it should be inscribed on a little card and carried around in the weskit pocket of every member for aposite brandishing.
I just don’t take that whole offer seriously at all. I mean, David Cameron? With his, what was it, progressive consensus? There is nothing, nothing progressive about the Conservative party. He has no idea of how to deliver social justice – does he really think that giving people a tax break of twenty quid a week is going to make them stay married? He has no notion of how to follow up on all his fine words on the environment and he just doesn’t even begin to understand what liberalism actually means. Decentralisation? How does Cameron intend to achieve that exactly? The only way to really offer decentralisation is to devolve the raising of tax to local level, or else it becomes meaningless – this is so basic. And we are the only party that offers this.
I’m also completely relaxed about comparisons with Cameron, just because I think the differences are so much more instructive than the similarities. Look at how we started out in the 1980s – I was repelled by the soulless vision of Thatcher’s Britain and he fell in behind it. I am sufficiently self-confident in my liberalism to know that I am a different sort of leader to him. He’s just . . . vapid.
I’m not in the business of leading the party into an annexe with either Labour or the Conservatives. Liberalism is the creed of our times. I believe the British people have the core liberal instinct, and my business is to concentrate on that.
Don’t worry [dark expression]. He’ll be dealt with.
Well, I don’t know about the enemy, but he sure scares the hell out of me.
“Exemplifying the tolerance of my generation”
Nick had interesting things to say in response to Alex’s question about maintaining various minority votes – particularly now that Iraq is receding as an issue and the gay lobby has won much of the legislation it was demanding. I would even cautiously say that he came closer to articulating a successful, common sense position on this than any other politician I have heard.
Matters like sexual orientation are just a non-issue for his generation. That instinctive tolerance, that instinctive pluralism, is what he hopes to exemplify in himself as leader, and what he hopes will draw minority votes to us. Tolerance like that is in short supply in populist politics, but it’s fundamental to the creed of liberalism. If he can pull off this exemplification successively, people will realise that they needn’t just vote for us when we coincide on an issue. They’ll vote for us because we are who we are, and the central tenet of this is the acceptance – the unthinking acceptance – that they are who they are.
It’s that non-issue bit I like. It avoids all that special pleading and exaggerated politeness that can make politicians sound like they’re guiltily hiding a homophobic past. It’s a top piece of Cleggery – common sense, heartfelt, and once it’s out it’s so simple you wonder why no-one else has come out with it.
“Look, I don’t mean to order anyone about, but would it be possible to get a cup of tea?”
I am going to return for the last two questions another moon, but James has already blogged his (as has the fluffy one) and Linda’s question touched on positive discrimination which I have been pummelling very recently.
The People’s Republic is cautiously quite excited. We may put some bunting up or something. Between London hustings, today’s acceptance speech and tonight’s interviews (friendly and otherwise), we conclude that Nick is a fast learner, as well as one of the good guys. I have a nagging suspicion that I can’t quite put my finger on – far less offer supporting evidence for – that it was hostility within his party that he found vaguely disturbing. Hostility from the outside is something he’s more ready for, impatient to deal with. “Hang on,” he kept exocetting at the bullying Paxomaniac tonight.
It’s actually a damn good liberal catchphrase. Now, hang on.