Nick Clegg back to grassroots politics in Sheffield after election woe

Picture shows Nick Clegg giving a speech at the 2015 general election count at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, after he held his seat. Ian Hinchliffe/
Picture shows Nick Clegg giving a speech at the 2015 general election count at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, after he held his seat. Ian Hinchliffe/
Have your say

Three months ago, he was the Deputy Prime Minister after taking his party into government for the first time in 60 years.

On Thursday, Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg spent his last few hours as Liberal Democrat leader talking to constituents, meeting the new Peak District Park Authority chief and giving his first newspaper interview – to The Star – since the general election, before watching Tim Farron become his replacement.

Nick Clegg campaigning on people's doorsteps in Sheffield just five days before voters got to the polls.

Nick Clegg campaigning on people's doorsteps in Sheffield just five days before voters got to the polls.

The ‘trappings of power’ have gone, with a security team reduced, the ministerial Blackberry returned and fewer staff – it is a big change from striding along the corridors of power in Whitehall to campaigning on tree felling in Sheffield.

“As it happens I’m really enjoying having more time to work in the constituency again,” insists Mr Clegg.

“When the Conservatives and SNP argued each other to a standstill on fox hunting, I was able to jump on a train and went straight to the leaving party of a headteacher at Dore Primary School – I would never have been able to do that before.

“Things like that, I really enjoy. I’m going to take the time to relish the opportunity I have now to immerse myself more in the community of Sheffield Hallam.

Nick Clegg campaigning on people's doorsteps in Sheffield just five days before voters got to the polls.

Nick Clegg campaigning on people's doorsteps in Sheffield just five days before voters got to the polls.

“The nature of politics is that when things change, they do so very abruptly and publicly. While, of course, there is all the things you will instantly lose and quite rightly, such as the trappings of power and people who help you, but what has changed the most and what I enjoy most is I just have much more direct contact with the public day-to-day, because I’m not surrounded by a circle of heavies or rushing from one thing to the next all the time.

“It’s also been fascinating to see the huge amount of people who say that, even if they didn’t vote for us, how sad they are to see that it ended the way it did.”

The 48-year-old father-of-three admitted he was ‘blindsided’ by the general election exit polls correctly predicting a Conservative majority – immediately reaching for a cigarette despite having given them up - but vowed to remain as MP for the time being.

The former MEP says: “I’ve got no other plans to do anything else at the moment, and I’m going to take one Parliament at a time.”

It was a disastrous election for the Liberal Democrats, as the party was left with just eight MPs, down from 56.

Mr Clegg, who clung on to his own seat with a much-reduced majority of 2,353 votes after a strong Labour challenge, stood down as leader within hours of the election result being declared.

While he says he may regret individual decisions while in power, he insists he did not regret ‘overall judgements’ such as forming the coalition.

“I’m more proud than ever that in the face of huge adversity we stuck with it, we showed real dignity and resilience as a party in Government,” he says.

“We were being yelled at from right and left - we had this constant noise and I don’t think there is an example in modern British politics of a party being quite as steadfast and resilient as we had been under that huge pressure.

“As a lot of people have said, I think the history books will judge us kindly for having done something very exceptional, at considerable cost to the short t-rm fortunes of the party, for the country as a whole.”

Since the election ,the Government has announced a raft of changes.

One of the most controversial has been the pause on rail electrification projects, including the Midland Mainline from Sheffield to London, which has sparked outcry and a Labour campaign.

Mr Clegg, who as deputy prime minister spoke about rail and the Northern Powerhouse vision many times, said he had only learned of the decision when it was confirmed in the House of Commons late last month.

“I’m furious about that, because I wasn’t told,” he says. “I was never told about that and someone must have known that those electrification projects were not going to go through.”

Talking about the summer Budget, Mr Clegg says the Conservative party was ‘rushing with almost indecent haste to put itself ahead of the interests of the country and I find that disappointing given I tried to do very much the reverse’.

He says: “The idea that it is in any way justifiable in this day and age to whack the working poor and then give a whalloping great big tax cut to dead property millionaries - what does that say about your priorities?

“The thing most striking about the Budget was the naked political attempt to shortchange the young and cosset the old and I’ll tell you why it isn’t going to work.

“What the Conservatives are forgetting is that for every old person, a retired well-off person here in Sheffield Hallam who is embarrassed to have their winter fuel payment paid for by poorer people, these are grandfathers and grandmothers so they do actually care about the next generation and the young today will be the old tomorrow.

“I think of all the things, this will come to characterise this government, at their cost, because I just don’t think its consistent with a very basic British instinct of fairness.”

Three questions for Nick Clegg

Q Before the election you said repeatedly nobody was going to win outright, How shocked were you at the result?

A “I think everybody was really surprised, one of the fascinating things about that election was that literally nobody predicted the outcome. The Tories were preparing the move out of Number 10, Labour were preparing to move in. We knew we were going to lose some seats, but the best information was that we were going to withstand most of the onslaught. In that sense, it is a really healthy shot across the bows of the whole political media class that democracy, elections throw up big surprises even in this day and age with all the technology and endless media analysis and pollsters. At the end of the day it is an old fashioned thing, people going into the privacy of a ballot box and making up their mind without anyone knowing or telling them what to do, and it generated an extraordinary surprise.”

Q Was it quite a bitter day for you when the new party leader is chosen?

A “Of course I’m tremendously sad that our, I thought, decent minded and public spirited attempt to put the country first has not paid off in terms of our own electoral fortunes, but I am just equally convinced we will bounce back more quickly than people think because our values are intact, our unity is intact and because, in a strange kind of way, it’s like in life when you go through big ups and downs you learn a thing or two about yourself. I think the party is in fighting form. We’ve had close to 20,000 new members join since the election and most people joined because they just thought the results were fundamentally unfair to the Liberal Democrats.”

Q Can you say now what you really think of Prime Minister David Cameron?

A “No. I kept a diary for quite a while in government and so much of the ups and downs did very much revolve around debates, discussions, arguments, agreements and disagreements between two individuals – myself and David Cameron. But I just think its a bit unseemly if I was going to start immediately lifting the lid on all of that. Tempting though it might be sometimes to settle all sorts of scores and set the record straight and blow the lid on some of the nonsense that I now hear the Conservatives saying in public compared with what they say in private, I just think the whole thing would be pretty undignified, so I’m not going to do that.”