Clegg: “My kids don’t know I smoke, so please don’t tell them”

The Deputy PM on AV, broken promises, emotion and the dreaded weed.

There are some interesting nuggets in Andrew Rawnsley's interview with Nick Clegg in this morning's Observer. Rawnsley himself picks out Clegg's comments on the AV referendum for his own column – David Cameron and George Osborne panicked that a Yes vote would cause trouble with the Tory right and so decided to "throw the kitchen sink" at keeping the current electoral system – but some of the softer, more human, stuff is likely to get greater pick-up.

As we discovered with Jemima Khan's recent interview with the Deputy PM, it's the personal, not the political, that intrigues – "Why are the students angry with you, Papa?" and "he cries regularly to music" compelled in a way that Clegg's views on the Arab spring did not.

In the same vein, take this exchange on Clegg's well-known smoking habit:

Is he still smoking? "A little bit." That sounds like the sort of fib people tell to their doctors or partners. How much is a little bit? "Not much. No, not much. Three. Maybe three. Sometimes four. I never have smoked that much. I smoke only in the evenings, out of sight, when the children are asleep."

They don't know he smokes?

"No, no. So please don't tell them."

You hide in the garden?

"Yes, I hide in the garden. No, hide is the wrong verb. I cower. I cower."

Miriam gives him a hard time about his habit. Has he tried to quit? "Not much. Not right now." He pulls a face which begs for mercy. "Can I please have one little private sin which I can keep to myself?"

As Rawnsley notes, a "less open and more artful politician would have not allowed himself to be drawn into conversation about his smoking". This candidness – the anti-politician – was part of the Clegg charm that worked so well a year ago.

That it works less well 12 months on is, of course, more to do with what voters perceive as his broken promises. The central motif for this has been the picture of Clegg holding a large "No to tuition fees increase" pledge card. But perhaps this party political broadcast, from 13 April 2010, sums up the sense of betrayal best, featuring as it does a high-minded Clegg declaring "an end to broken promises and the beginning of a new hope".

If you want to know how Lib Dem HQ feels about this broadcast, try to embed the official version on to your own blog. You can't. "Embedding disabled by request," YouTube tells us.

No prizes for guessing why.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.