Sketch: Clegg reinvents the press conference
Nick Clegg thought he had tried everything. He tours around the country, speechifying about everything governmental under the sun, but the voters don't pay any attention. So he does something no other government minister has ever done in history, and signs up to a regular radio phone-in slot on Thursday mornings. This is useful, and some journalists and Londoners actually bother listening. It's still not enough though. Then comes another bright idea. How about a monthly press conference?
Not since late antiquity – or at least June 2010 – has a party leader indulged in such a practice. It was Tony Blair who started the trend off with a prime ministerial show once a month. Gordon Brown followed suit and forced David Cameron to counter with his own while in opposition. But once safely ensconced in No 10 a different view prevailed. Cameron has preferred to restrict himself to hasty, fleeting questioning from the media, when only big-fish broadcasters get called upon and lowly newspapers and internet publications fall by the wayside.
Then came July 1st 2013, a new dawn for journalism and for media coverage of the deputy prime minister. With Cameron bogged down somewhere in central Asia the coast was clear for Clegg to hog the airwaves. So it was that the great monthly press conference revival began. Journalists of the lobby, rejoice!
Clegg uses Admiralty House for these occasions – a neglected bit of Whitehall which is now more akin to a museum piece than a place for civil servants to do their work. The room Clegg was in featured grandiose paintings of old naval battles. But you couldn't tell that from watching it on television, as a sickly green plastic sheet had been draped behind the DPM. "Fairer society, stronger economy," it stated, in a sneak preview of the utterly predictable Lib Dem manifesto campaign message. Not an occasion to ask about the nitty-gritty of constitutional reform, then.
This was about Clegg having a say in the running of the country. But, more than that, it was about him getting in quotable snippets for the day's news stories. "I know how frustrated you are trying to get through to the phone lines on LBC," Clegg joked at the start. And, to his credit, in the 52 minutes that followed he gave virtually all those assembled the opportunity to ask a question. It is an extraordinary revolution. Let journalists ask questions, and they might actually bother writing about them (I'm about to do up a story on what he told me about Ukip, for example).
It helped that the issues in the news today are all about disagreements in the coalition – a trend which will only intensify in the coming months. "I'd much rather spend it all on working families," he said, on the possibility of a marriage tax allowance. He said the Lib Dems would abstain on this Friday's EU referendum bill because he didn't want to help them "indulge in their own feuds". He insisted "there are other options" than the Tory-backed Trident replacement. And he mocked his Tory nemesis Peter Bone's suggestion of a Margaret Thatcher day ruthlessly by highlighting his other "loopy ideas". Clegg and Bone have an odd sort of affection for each other. They can't help but smile gently as they condemn each other as a complete waste of time.
It was on MPs' pay that Clegg got most worked up. He explained that he wasn't at all keen to see it go up, on the reasonable basis that even the possibility of it tends to send voters into paroxysms of rage. As he spoke I noticed that the two glasses sitting on his lectern were wobbling about dangerously. Clegg was elevated on an unstable-looking podium about ten inches in height which had just enough give in it to bounce up and down, threatening the fundamental stability of his lectern. A coalition metaphor seems irresistible here, especially as the glasses did not fall over in a terrible crash. Clegg's bouncing merely triggered a spillage, prompting drops of liquid to dribble messily down to the floor.
The threatened calamity did not materialise, though. And though Clegg was on the defensive once or twice, he was not actually uncomfortable at any stage of the proceedings. This was an easy ride for a man now perfectly at ease in these surroundings. Bizarre and troubling as it may sound, this was a rare sight in Westminster: that of a politician having a good day.