As the talks between party leaders continue today, the Liberal Democrats may be alarmed to see the leaked memo, drawn up by William Hague, in which he assumed Tory victory, and with it a fundamental recasting of the UK’s relationship with the EU.
But such yawning ideological differences do not seem to have dimmed the signals — at this stage — being given out by the Lib Dems that the talks with the Tories remain their priority.
Amid these strange scenes, I had a look back at an interview I did with Nick Clegg last year, in which, even back then, he refused to rule out a deal with the Tory party in the event of a hung parliament. He also carefully appeared to pursue the equidistance between the two main parties that has been one of the defining features of his leadership so far.
Clegg expressed deep fustration with Labour. Beneath the surface and between the lines, however, surely you can detect more real ideological division with the Tories:
There is a revealing difference in the way Clegg talks about Labour and the Conservatives. On the former, he exhibits genuine despair at lost opportunities. “A lot of people I think, quite understandably — close friends of mine, members of my family feel the same — were so excited in 1997 about the possibility of change . . . And they kind of stuck with it through thick and thin, and they seem now to be really up for doing something different.”
Which is why, although he has been criticised by some on the left for targeting Tory votes, he says: “Our growth is almost all at the cost of Labour, particularly in the urban heartland . . . The big change at the next general election will be a very significant advance of the Liberal Democrats at the cost of Labour.”
With David Cameron’s Tories, meanwhile, the gap is ideological. “My frustration with Labour, that they haven’t made this simple progressive case, is matched, I have to say, by my utter, utter dismay at the Tories.” The Conservatives’ stance on Europe leads his list of complaints. In particular, their decision to leave the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament and their opposition to EU laws on extradition. “I mean, what planet are they on? They want to go now into bed with a bunch of serious, serial nutters for a start . . . And they are now lying to people, saying that they can help them make Britain safer, when they are not going to deal with international criminals.”
He brushes off comparisons with Cameron — “people always make characterisations” – but also goes further than ever in distancing himself from the Tory leader. “I am someone who clearly has completely different values to Cameron. I just maybe see it as so obvious that I don’t spell it out . . . You know, I didn’t spend my life hovering around the Westminster village — I’m a complete newcomer, I only arrived here in 2005. He [Cameron] was a party apparatchik, I think did some basic PR stuff for a telly company, then was back in politics again. You know, I worked as a journalist for a while, for two years I managed development aid projects in the former Soviet Union, I was a trade negotiator, and the first time I did my time [in] politics wasn’t even here, it was as an MEP. So I think I got a completely different outlook. We are completely different in where we come from in our constituencies. And also he clearly has absolutely no feel for the enormity of the task of changing politics — absolutely none at all. He hasn’t even changed the Conservatives.”
Despite all of this, Clegg repeatedly refuses to rule out a coalition with the Tories in the event of a hung parliament. “You’re asking me to choose between my despair at Labour and my disdain for the Conservatives,” he says.