Nick Clegg believes the Brexit campaign was “the biggest con trick in politics” - but is the ongoing fallout from the EU referendum winning back voters to the Lib Dems? Chris Burn joins him on the campaign trail in Sheffield.
Just two years ago, an emotional Nick Clegg made what now seems a highly-prescient resignation speech as he stood down as Liberal Democrat leader after a crushing general election defeat where the junior partner in the coalition Government lost 49 of their 57 MPs.
“One thing seems to me is clear: liberalism, here, as well as across Europe, is not faring well against the politics of fear,” Clegg said.
“Years of remorseless economic and social hardship following the crash in 2008 and the grinding insecurities of globalisation have led for people to reach to new certainties: the politics of identity, of nationalism, of Us versus Them is now on the rise.
“Fear and grievance have won, liberalism has lost. But it is more precious than ever and we must keep fighting for it.”
Fast-forward 24 months and the liberal values he mentioned seem to be in even greater retreat in the age of Brexit and President Donald Trump. But despite the country seemingly preparing to hand the Conservatives a landslide majority and the Liberal Democrats losing seats in last week’s local elections, Clegg believes there are signs of optimism for a liberal revival both here and abroad.
Speaking the day before Emmanuel Macron - a man Clegg has met and describes as “a Liberal to his fingertips” - was elected French president with a resounding victory, the former deputy prime minister said he believes the need for liberalism to fight for its future is giving it “a clearer and stronger voice” across the world.
Ironically enough, fresh hope for the Liberal Democrats in this country has come in the form of something they fundamentally oppose - Brexit.
While Clegg did manage to cling on to his Sheffield Hallam seat in the 2015 election, he saw his majority cut from more than 15,000 to just over 2,000 in a bitterly-fought contest with Labour. Clegg admits that some voters in Sheffield two years ago were “very unhappy” and “wanted to give me a piece of their mind” over the decisions made by the coalition Government but says things have changed this time around.
As Clegg canvassed potential voters in the constituency where he is hoping to re-elected once again, he said the reaction on the doorstep from voters in Sheffield is “utterly different” to the 2015 campaign, with Brexit acting as a “Year Zero moment” resetting the clock on the way many people view the nation’s political parties.
And while reaction on the doorstep in the genteel village of Worrall to the north of Sheffield was far from unanimous - one young activist gets a brusque ‘No, thanks’ and a door closed in his face when he says he is out campaigning with Clegg - it was notable how the former Liberal Democrat leader is largely well-received when he asks residents for their support, greeted with handshakes and wishes of good luck.
The Liberal Democrats have very deliberately positioned themselves as the party of “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain and Clegg says the stance is resounding on the doorstep.
“Quite a lot of people quite understandably don’t see the world just through the Brexit prism. But people do see the connection between Brexit and bread and butter issues. People get the Government has admitted there is a large black hole in the finances because of Brexit which puts further pressure on hospitals and schools and social care. They are aware the fall in the pound means their summer holiday will be more expensive.
“People think Brexit is going to be a lot more complex than they were told.”
While the Liberal Democrats have been pushing the idea of another referendum once the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU are clear, Clegg accepts there is currently no great public appetite for another vote. But he believes that will change once the shape of the Brexit deal becomes clear and even rejects the idea it would be a “second referendum”.
“It would be a first referendum of what Brexit actually means in practice - it is not asking anyone to change their minds on what they voted for the first time. Since we had no idea about what leaving really means in practice, it seems right to book-end the whole process so the British people can sign that process off.
“The last election campaign was just 24 months ago. Things are moving so fast I think [that people not wanting another referendum] may change dramatically in the next 18 months.”
He also does not accept the argument that Remain supporters would have dismissed calls for a second vote should Britain have voted to stay in the EU.
“If we had won 52-48, we wouldn’t have then pursued a hard Brexit, taking us into the eurozone, into a European army, into the Schengen zone. They have taken a very narrow victory in the most uncompromising and damaging way possible.”
Clegg, who worked in the European Commission and was in the European Parliament before becoming an MP, insists he is “not some European fantatic” but does not shy away from his passionate belief that Brexit is a mistake for the nation.
His views on those involved in campaigning for Leave, who he believes “sold Brexit on a completely false prospectus and should be held to account”, are even more withering. Clegg highlights claims that quitting the EU would free up £350m per week for the NHS, provide a quick solution to immigration issues and allow the UK to easily negotiate trade deals with countries outside the EU as examples of where he feels the public was misled.
“I feel nothing but contempt for people like Farage, Gove and Johnson and the lies they spread,” he says.
“I have nothing but respect for those who voted for Brexit, I have no dispute with that at all. But I’m angry at the Brexit leadership. It is the biggest con trick in modern British politics. I was accused of not doing what I said. The colossal scale of the lies spread by the Leave campaign makes the claims that the Lib Dems misled the public over tuition fees pale in comparison’.
“Pulling the wool over the people’s eyes about every aspect of Britain’s future as the leading Brexiteers did is infinitely worse than the painful compromise we made on one policy as part of the Coalition Government at a time when there was no money.”
Despite their punishment at the ballot box in 2015 - partly influenced by the infamous U-turn over university tuition fees - Clegg insists he does not regret the party’s time in Government.
“I have regrets about individual decisions but I’m incredibly proud of what we managed to do. We managed to provide stable, sound, moderate Government for half-a-decade when governments in Europe were toppling like nine-pins and the country was recovering from the devastating economic heart attack of 2008. Anyone in Government was to be in Government when people’s real incomes were being hit, created by a financial crisis which preceded us.
“It was an unforgiving outcome for the Lib Dems. It was a Government that broadly speaking was doing the right things for the country as a whole. We put country before party.”
But even for an optimist like Clegg, the much-vaunted “Lib Dem fightback” that the party has been promoting can be generously described as a work in progress. When asked what would constitute success in this election, he says the party hope to achieve “somewhere between what we have now and the number of seats in 2015”.
Voters will soon deliver their verdict on whether the tide really has turned for the Lib Dems.
‘I never thought of walking away’
Nick Clegg says he was determined to remain in politics after the 2015 General Election despite his party being almost wiped out in Parliament.
While some expected him to leave politics after quitting as Lib Dem leader, he says he never seriously considered it.
“I definitely wanted to stick around to do my bit to get us up off the canvass, I didn’t want to flee for the hills. I felt a sense of duty that I should stick around.”
He said while he was unsure of whether he would have stayed in frontline politics after 2020 had the next General Election been held then as was originally planned, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election has left him determined to fight out and win re-election in Sheffield Hallam once again.