Review: There's a method to Clegg's LBC madness

Man of the people? Desperate times call for desperate measures
Man of the people? Desperate times call for desperate measures
Alex Stevenson By

What is the deputy prime minister thinking? As expected, his first appearance on a weekly call-in programme was full of hostility and contempt from the great unwashed – that vast mass of people politicians are forced to engage with. Some prefer to do so at arm's length, writing letters from their constituency offices and avoiding their Friday surgeries whenever possible. Others like to get their hands dirty, metaphorically speaking of course. Today, Clegg stepped firmly into that camp.

The Liberal Democrat leader is desperate. Why? Because he is the leader of the Liberal Democrats, of course. A party now so despised for being sell-outs to the Tories they are facing electoral annihilation at the next general election. They are in danger of being pegged back to fourth place in national polls by Ukip. They get all the blame for the coalition's spending cuts agenda, but very few of the perks. The Lib Dems do not get praised for responsibly maintaining a stable government. As our analysis of yesterday's midterm audit showed, they are hated because they have broken their promises, on everything from local referenda to tuition fees.

So Clegg, who could yet be supplanted by a rival before the next general election, has to do something to turn his party's apparently hopeless fortunes around. He and his aides will recall those days – were they a dream? – when he emerged as the Answer to Britain's problems in the 2010 general election campaign. 'Cleggmania' was the result of the direct connection with voters he achieved in the televised prime ministerial debates. Now, nearly three years later, he hopes to revive that spirit in any way he can.

A weekly 30-minute call-in session on LBC is not an ideal solution. Naturally the BBC would not have an 'Alo Presidente' style session from a senior member of the government; this is not Venezuela, and Clegg is definitely not Hugo Chavez. Nor would a gig on one of the country's myriad commercial stations be feasible. So Clegg has to settle for LBC, which has a sizeable audience but is London-centric.

Still, going to a room with a microphone in it sounds like a good idea to Clegg. After his first show he should be feeling positive about the experience. He was harangued by angry voters, including one former party member who sounded as if he had taken great pleasure in tearing up his Lib Dem membership card. Indeed, it sounded like he would take great pleasure in tearing up the Lib Dem leader. Clegg, who these days meets more disgruntled Lib Dems than gruntled ones, managed to shrug off his concerns. "You say you're ashamed," he told grumpy John from Surrey. "I'm actually immensely proud."

That will have surprised at least some of his listeners. Clegg often does that. He appears a fairly bland man at first glance. There is nothing particularly striking about his appearance. He could be a postman, or a chartered surveyor, or a bank manager. But there is more to this man than meets the eye. He didn't get to be the hated politician he is today without having some very, very thick skin. Clegg deals with being a hate figure in a way some politicians – Gordon Brown springs to mind – simply couldn't get close to. He is robust in policy terms, too. There is a reason he beat the master-politico Chris Huhne to the party's leadership, after all.

Now add to that firm backbone a dash of flexibility – and innovation borne of desperate necessity. This morning Clegg repeated his statement of regret about the tuition fee broken promise. His apology last autumn set the tone for what will be a constant refrain in the weeks and months to come. That was the kind of bold strategic call Clegg and his aides are capable of making. It might not be the right one, but it was a calculated gamble.

If nothing else, he has won headlines today. And contrast his approach with David Cameron, who has decided even the ordeal of a monthly press conference with lobby journalists is now too terrifying a prospect to countenance. What a chicken!

Clegg is making history. This is nothing new: the coalition is a historic experiment, and it is all his fault. Which is why he's having to do this sort of show.

It may not be enough. Frustrated callers are going to be laying into him, week after week. He may just as easily become a default target, soaking up the hatred on behalf of the Conservatives, as he will succeed in getting out the Lib Dem message more effectively. But what other choice does he have? It's a million to one chance, he'll be telling Vince and co, but it might just work.


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