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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Photo: Getty
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A to Z of the 2017 general election

Our strong and stable guide – for the many, not the few.

A is for the Andrews

Although Theresa May spent the election campaign dodging debates (and, consequently, an unhappy junior reporter from the Mirror in a chicken costume) there were a few live interviews for masochistic audiences. The BBC’s Andrews – Neil and Marr – both had a go.

On 30 April, Marr made it harder for the Prime Minister by telling her before they started that she wasn’t allowed to use the phrase “strong and stable” or other soundbites. (She lasted 30 seconds before cracking.) “People can listen to that sort of thing and think it’s a bit robotic,” he told her, foreshadowing later criticism. By the time of Andrew Neil’s BBC1 interview on 22 May the conversation had moved on. “You started this campaign with a huge double-digit lead in the polls. It’s now down to single digits in some polls. What’s gone wrong?” Mrs May’s answer? “Well, Andrew, there’s only one poll that counts . . .”

B is for Brenda

Brenda, a resident of Bristol, spoke for the nation on 18 April when she heard the news that an election had been called. “You’re joking. Not another one?!” she said, her face a cross between overheated aunt at village fete and Edvard Munch’s Scream. “Oh for God’s sake, I can’t, honestly – I can’t stand this,” she told a BBC reporter. “There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?” Judging by Brenda’s subsequent internet fame, much of the country was asking the same thing.

C is for clinky

Boris Johnson was mostly kept on the bench during the campaign but he did surface from time to time. He began the campaign by insulting Jeremy Corbyn (see M), and on another occasion he put in an awkward appearance at a Sikh temple. “I hope I’m not embarrassing anybody here by saying that when we go to India, we have to bring ‘clinky’ in our luggage,” he told the audience. “We have to bring Johnnie Walker.”

The Foreign Secretary added that, after Brexit, we could reduce the stiff import tax on alcohol. The audience told him that Sikh teachings forbid drinking alcohol. “How dare you talk about alcohol in a Sikh temple?” said one. Johnson’s plan to visit a mosque to talk about the pork trade was presumably cancelled.

D is for dementia tax

David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May – all came a cropper because of a tax that isn’t really a tax. While Cameron and Osborne opted for taxes on spare bedrooms and hot pasties, the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto announced a raid on your ailing granny. The principle of the so-called dementia tax was that those with assets of more than £100,000 would have to pay for their social care. (Those with assets of less than £100,000 would escape paying anything.)

The world quickly turned on its head: the left-wing Momentum group defended the right of the middle classes to large inheritances, and the once-obdurate PM was forced into a hasty U-turn (lamely stating that “nothing has changed”).

E is for Emmanuel Macron

Be still, notre beating coeurs. On 7 May, the pragmatic centrist Emmanuel Macron beat the far-right Marine Le Pen in the run-off of the French presidential election. After Brexit and the success of Donald Trump, it felt like a ray of sunshine to Europe’s weary liberals – proof that Euroscepticism, isolationism and anti-immigrant rhetoric are not the only ways to win.

Since taking office, Macron, 39, has consolidated France’s commitment to the EU and eurozone, naming a minister for “European and foreign affairs”. He has condemned Russian state news outlets as “organs of influence” while standing next to Vladimir Putin, and he shook Trump’s hand (above) for a really, really long time. “My handshake with him – it wasn’t innocent,” Macron said. “It was a moment of truth.”

F is for Fallon

Michael Fallon has many roles: Defence Secretary, “Minister for the Today Programme” and Smearer-in-Chief. An otherwise unremarkable cabinet member, he was happy to be drafted in by CCHQ as an attack dog – unleashed to make personal gibes about the opposition whenever it looked as if the Tory campaign was wobbling.

In 2015, he warned that Ed Miliband had “stabbed his own brother in the back” to become Labour leader and would be “willing to stab the UK in the back” by doing a deal with the SNP to cancel Trident. This time around, Fallon branded Jeremy Corbyn a “security risk” because of his stance on the nuclear weapons. A bit rich, when you consider that the pompous Fallon presided over a failed Trident missile test.

G is for go-karting

“Labour is in pole position to beat the SNP”, proclaimed Scottish Labour’s Twitter account on the day of the party’s manifesto launch. Accompanying this optimistic statement were three pictures showing the regional party’s leader, Kezia Dugdale, as she won a go-kart race against a black-helmeted racer wearing an SNP rosette. If only it were that easy to defeat First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

H is for hairstyles

The Andrew Marr Show is best known for its interviews (and end music) rather than its style tips. Yet during this campaign, two politicians used it to share their grooming tips with a grateful nation. First up, Labour’s Diane Abbott told us that in the 1980s she used to have an afro (and strong opinions about the need for armed struggle in Ireland) but has since “moved on”.

The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, then responded by saying that she had “changed her hairstyle a few times in 34 years, too” but her opinions on public safety had not shifted. Let us know if you move away from 2017’s shoulder-grazing blonde bob, Amber. We’re waiting for your update.

I is for ivory sales ban

It isn’t every day that Britain’s “powerful antiques industry lobby” – presumably made up of those interchangeable men in tweed jackets on Antiques Roadshow – makes headlines. However, after the Conservative manifesto launched without a pledge to ban the ivory trade in Britain, Theresa May was accused by animal rights campaigners of U-turning on David Cameron’s previous commitment.

Given that Prince William is one of the ban’s most vocal advocates, you would have thought Theresa the Traditionalist might have happily ditched the antiques dealers in favour of the royal seal of approval.

J is for java

Dark, bitter and scalding: coffee has become the latest accessory of class war. While out in his constituency, the Tory candidate for Wakefield, Antony Calvert, caused outrage by tweeting about a mere proletarian’s audacity in entering a branch of that renowned aristocratic haunt, Costa: “Man recognises me at #Wakefield Westgate. ‘These f*ckin Tories, always looking 2 trample on t’working class, like me’. Man walks into Costa.” Working-class people can’t drink competitively priced caffeine products in popular high-street chains, so the guy must have been a faker, right?

And it’s not just Tories who think an espresso is la-di-da. The Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, suggested that only rich people buy coffee from shops when he condemned the government’s proposed “barista visa” as a Tory plan for avoiding “waiting longer in the morning for their posh coffee”. Workers of the world, percolate!

K is for Katie Hopkins

For the past few years, it seems, no news event has escaped the attention of the former LBC shock jock and Mail Online columnist Katie Hopkins, formerly a candidate on The Apprentice. After expressing her hatred of tattoos, the obese, mobility scooters, maternity leave, the McCanns and redheads, and her admiration for ebola (“Malthusian”), she finally lost her LBC gig after tweeting, then deleting, a call for a “final solution” to Muslim terrorism in Britain after the Manchester bomb.

L is for Lynton Crosby

Nicknamed the Wizard (or Lizard) of Oz by unimaginative Westminster insiders, Lynton Crosby is the Australian election campaign guru who delivered David Cameron’s surprise general election victory in 2015. He is known for his colourful metaphors: the need to “get the barnacles off the boat” (ditch any baggage that might impede a campaign); “you can’t fatten a pig on market day” (voters’ preconceptions are hard to overturn); and, of course, the “dead cat”, which is irrelevant to the argument but nonetheless changes the conversation (often thrown by Michael Fallon; see F).

M is for mugwump

On 27 April, an attention-starved Boris Johnson momentarily forgot that everyone stopped finding his sub-Wodehouse shtick amusing some time ago. Writing in the Sun, he claimed that Labour voters didn’t realise what a grave danger Jeremy Corbyn posed to Britain. “They say to themselves: he may be a mutton-headed old mugwump, but he is probably harmless.” Cue a day of people googling “mugwump”, which turns out to mean: a) someone who left the US Republicans in the 19th century because they found the Democrat Grover Cleveland more appealing; b) the supreme wizard in Harry Potter; c) a predatory species from William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch that “have no liver and nourish themselves exclusively on sweets”.

In its response, Labour went both high (“It is the sort of look-at-me name-calling that you would expect in an Eton playground,” said the shadow housing secretary, John Healey) and low: “Boris Johnson is a caggie-handed cheese-headed fopdoodle with a talent for slummocking about,” said the deputy leader, Tom Watson.

N is for Natalie

“I’m not Natalie,” said Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, after Ukip’s Paul Nuttall twice got her name wrong in the second-tier leaders’ debate on 18 May. Later, Natalie (Bennett of the Greens) tweeted: “The only time I can recall being in the same room as Paul Nuttall was #BBCAQ in 2014. He clearly hasn’t recovered.” No wonder Ukip wants to ban face coverings (see V). Nuttall already has difficulty telling women apart.

O is for The One Show

After the rigours of the set-piece political interview, Theresa May (with her husband, Philip, above) and, later, a solo Jeremy Corbyn had a chance to show their softer side on BBC’s teatime chatfest The One Show. Revelations from the Mays included that their household has “boy jobs and girl jobs” (ie, Philip puts the bins out), that it was “love at first sight” and that “the Red Box has never made an appearance in the bedroom”.

Poignantly, May recounted how when she was a young Conservative candidate she received a phone call from her shocked mother-in-law, after a local newspaper mistakenly printed that she had a new baby. For his appearance, Corbyn was in full-on affable uncle mode, talking about his allotment and his love of decorative drain covers and presenting the show’s hosts with a jar of his home-made jam.

P is for polling

In the final days of the 2015 campaign, the pollsters were accused of “herding”: massaging their raw figures with turnout filters and other wizardry to produce what they thought was the most plausible election result, and therefore missing the possibility of a Tory majority. No such problem this time: there were double-digit differences between pollsters’ estimations of the Conservative lead over Labour, indicating that they were prepared to go out on a limb and take some risks.

Q is for the Queen

“I had a very nice chat with the Queen,” said Jeremy to Jeremy on 29 May. Paxman had been trying to press Corbyn on why his republican leanings hadn’t led to Labour calling for the abolition of the monarchy. “You don’t like her, though – you don’t like what she represents,” Paxman said. But Monsieur Zen was untroubled. “We got along absolutely fine.” Are you thinking what we were thinking? What a pair of replacements they would make for Paul and Mary on Channel 4’s Great British Bake Off . . .

R is for regressive alliance

In the early stages of the campaign, left-wing idealists and disillusioned tribal politicians alike turned to the prospect of a “progressive alliance” as the only hope of challenging the Tories. (And Theresa May invoked it herself with her line about a “coalition of chaos” propping up Labour.) However, commentators largely ignored the emergence of the Regressive Alliance: that is, a Conservative Party boosted by Ukip’s decision not to run in nearly half of the 650 seats. Forget a progressive realignment – this is the big shift in British politics.

S is for strong and stable

It was Lynton Crosby’s New Coke moment: out with the lame old Conservative brand, in with unfussy Theresa May and her “strong and stable leadership”. The campaign began with May and the cabinet – fresh from unlearning the phrase “long-term economic plan” – dutifully parroting their new line. Destination: landslide? Not quite. “Strong and stable” lost much of its rhetorical power when it turned out that the equivocating May was, in the words of Channel 4’s Michael Crick, more “weak and wobbly”. Soon afterwards, Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in the polls began to improve.

T is for terror

The horrifying terror attacks on Manchester and London led to temporary suspensions of the national election campaign. Theresa May and her Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, faced questions about cuts to police numbers and the ability of the security services to monitor known extremists.

The Manchester bomb prompted an outpouring of solidarity and fellow feeling, with thousands of people gathering in the city’s Albert Square for a vigil on 23 May. There they listened to Tony Walsh’s moving performance of his poem “This Is the Place”: “And there’s hard times again in these streets of our city/But we won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity/Because this is a place where we stand strong together/With a smile on our face, Mancunians for ever.”

U is for Ulster

“Can we ever have too much democracy?” ask the people of Northern Ireland. Having stoically endured decades of tumult and violence, this was their fourth national election in 13 months (after two assembly elections and the EU referendum).

V is for Vitamin D

Ukip’s election manifestos have often been very odd (anyone remember their 2010 pledge to reintroduce “proper dress for major hotels, restaurants and theatres”?) but their 2017 offering surpassed all expectations. Under its “show your face in a public place” policy, Paul Nuttall’s party suggested that the UK should implement a ban on the burqa and niqab: partly because they are a “barrier to integration”, but also because these face coverings “prevent intake of essential Vitamin D from sunlight”. Unsurprisingly, the science was a bit whiffy. Sunlight causes the body to make Vitamin D; we don’t “intake” it from sunrays.

W is for worker bees

The Manchester attack led to a quirky fundraising attempt for the victims’ families as tattooists donated their time to create a permanent symbol of Manchester’s resilience and unity. Among those who got a worker bee tattoo – taken from the city’s coat of arms – was Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds, who was first elected the MP for Stalybridge and Hyde in 2010.

His only worry, he wrote on Facebook, was how his mum would react. Less than quarter of an hour later, we found out. Luckily, although Judith Reynolds expressed shock, she thought her son’s action was for a good cause. “OMG this is your mother!!! I hate tattoos but under the circumstances totally support you.” By early June, the appeal had raised more than £300,000.

X is for xeroxed

As the Labour Party was preparing to launch its general election manifesto, the entire draft was leaked in the Daily Mirror and the Telegraph. This allowed the Daily Mail and other right wing newspapers the opportunity to run pearl-clutching “Back to the 1970s” headlines a few days earlier than they would otherwise have done.

Although the usual accusations of incompetence were levelled at Jeremy Corbyn’s office, the leak might have been deliberate – it gave Labour two days of coverage rather than one for its policies, most of which polled well with the public.

Y is for Yotam Ottolenghi 

When the celebrated restaurateur appeared on the Today programme to discuss the Conservatives’ plan to scrap free school lunches, it was hard to tell what shocked Middle England more: that Theresa May’s favourite chef strongly disagreed with her proposals, or the revelation that he sometimes sends his children to school with ham-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch, rather than a fancy fattoush salad topped with pomegranate and baba ganoush.

Yotam Ottolenghi argued that a hot school lunch was an important social, as well as nutritional, experience for children. Friends and relatives of the Prime Minister should be on high alert for regifted copies of his cookbook Jerusalem this Christmas.

Z is for Zac Goldsmith

It’s just traditional now, innit? Yes, Z for Zac is standing again, mere months after he lost his Richmond Park seat to the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Olney in a by-election he had called over the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport. No, he didn’t get the concession he wanted from the Conservatives. Yes, people still remember his dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty, which was run by the “strategic mastermind” Lynton Crosby (see L).

We are caught between admiring Goldsmith’s commitment to public service and wondering whether he should just find a hobby. 

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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