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25 April 2011

Clegg and Cameron’s stage-managed ruckus

Nick Clegg and David Cameron are keen to play up their differences. But are there really cracks in t

By Duncan Robinson

The Prime Minister and his deputy both gave interviews to national newspapers this weekend. It was obviously David Cameron’s turn to be Good Cop in the Daily Telegraph. He duly took the softly-softly approach, discussing watching DVDs with his wife in bed and putting together Ikea cupboards. Nick Clegg, however, was Bad Cop in the Independent. A very bad cop, indeed.

After a rather-too-revealing interview in the New Statesman this month, Clegg has attempted a self-reinvention, turning himself from a simpering punchbag and teary-eyed audiophile to a hardened political street fighter, swinging at anyone who gets in his way.

“I’m a human being – not a punchbag,” he whimpered to Jemima Khan in the New Statesman, while also admitting that he cries to music. Now, though, he’s not a human being, he’s an animal, tearing strips off anyone who looks at him funny or gets in his way. John Reid? “Reactionary and backward-looking.” The Tories? “A right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are.”

Clegg even massacres the English language to prove what a tough nut he is. “I am probably harder line than anybody . . . about making sure that Liberal Democrats don’t get rolled over.”

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And it has worked. The Lib Dems haven’t been rolled over – in his head, at least. “If you were a political expert from Mars and you didn’t take your cue from the Daily Mail, you would conclude that this is, objectively speaking, a quintessentially Liberal government.”

But hang on, the coalition is fundamentally Tory, says Cameron in his interview:

People who voted Conservative can look at this government and say, of course it’s a coalition, I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I got reform of the welfare system. I got a cap on immigration. I got the abolition of Labour’s jobs tax; a massive expansion of academy schools. I think Conservative supporters have every reason to think, “Of course this government hasn’t solved all the problems of the country, but they’re on my side.”

As the local elections near, both leaders are desperate to paint their party’s principles as the guiding narrative of the coalition – and emphasise that neither of them really likes coalition government. In this regard, they sound remarkably similar, for men so eager to emphasise their differences.

Clegg describes the coalition as an “unsentimental . . . transaction”, sounding awfully like a husband justifying his visits to a call girl. Clegg doesn’t want a relationship with his bit on the side – Cameron means nothing to me, Miriam! “I see all this stuff about how we are somehow mates. We are not. We are not there to become friends,” he says. “I didn’t come into this coalition government to look for friends.” Tennis partners, perhaps – but not friends.

Cameron, meanwhile, gets the point across through a loud conversation with a Conservative councillor in Southampton, in earshot of the Daily Telegraph‘s Allison Pearson.

“Can we get a few right-wing Lib Dems over to us?” asked Cameron. “Coalition’s working well. Quietly deprive the Lib Dems of their seats?

“Don’t write that down,” the Prime Minister says to me jokingly.

He might as well have thrown her a cheeky wink. With local elections and the AV referendum just two weeks away, it is no wonder that Clegg and Cameron are preaching to their respective choirs in the Independent and Daily Telegraph.

The interviews, however, are electioneering, plain and simple. Any talk about “cracks” in the coalition on the back of them is misplaced. It’s a stage-managaged ruck to please the punters and nothing more.