At 9 o’clock this morning, journalists all over the country were fiddling with their radios excitedly. Nick Clegg was about to start his first LBC phone-in, and they were gleefully waiting for the Deputy Prime Minister to huff and puff his way through half an hour of enraged callers. There was even a live high-definition feed from the studio, so everyone could watch Clegg looking sad.
Disappointingly for those lying in wait next to their radios, Clegg actually performed rather well. Sure, those on the phone weren’t calling just to say they loved him, but the Deputy Prime Minister wasn’t huffing and puffing when he answered their questions about tuition fees, benefit cuts and all the other awkward things the Lib Dems have had to swallow since entering government. He was even able to close the phone-in by announcing that he was the owner of a ‘big green onesie’. This was his exchange with one caller, who offered the sort of question Clegg’s critics had been hoping for by announcing that he had torn up his Lib Dem membership card:
John from Surrey: I’m a Liberal Democrat who has just torn up his membership card. I joined the party first in 1973, and I’m afraid I cannot now say that I want to represent the Lib Dems. I’m an ex-county councillor, in Surrey, and I’m ashamed of what the party’s doing. I’m just wondering, Nick, have you got your membership card with you?
Clegg: Not on me right now, no.
John: Shall I read it out? The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. So can you tell me how you reconcile that with this government’s attacks on the poorest in society, including the unemployed, the working poor, and the disabled.
Clegg: Well, let me try to, I’m sorry to hear, John, that you’ve… well, let me say this john, you say you’re ashamed, I’m actually immensely proud that facing one of the biggest economic crises that this government has seen in a generation, possibly in the post-war period, the Liberal Democrats took a big collective and brave decision to say right, we’re going to step up to the plate, we’re going to work in a Coalition because no-one won the general election and we’re going to try and fix this mess, and we’re going to try to fix this mess while also trying to make society fairer. How have we done that?
John fought on the last election as did I with a promise on the front page of our manifesto to raise the point at which people start paying income tax to £10,000. That is the biggest change in the income tax system in this country in a generation.
Herein lies the reason for Clegg signing up to the radio phone-in. His strength does lie in question-and-answer sessions. Yes, he might grow grumpy and sad-looking when he’s in the chamber (although his DPMQs performances of late have revealed more wit and quick thinking), but his performances at Q&As with his own party (who are just as upset and grumpy as today’s callers) have shown him to be adept at thinking on his feet and give detailed answers. He had one very irritable session at his party’s autumn conference in 2011 where he grew a little shouty and teacherly, but largely Clegg’s Q&As have boosted the morale of his party because he treats them with good humour. At no stage did he suggest the questions were getting to him by sounding irritable.
However, this isn’t an annual event: Clegg is submitting himself to LBC’s listeners on a weekly basis. Today’s questions were largely about long-standing gripes with the Coalition, but as this becomes more routine, he might find questions which he can’t answer so easily with soundbites that he’s already used at party events across the country.