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6 February 2015

Time is running out for Nick Clegg’s media rehabilitation – but it’s still possible

Time is running out for the Lib Dem leader to make himself popular again.

By Alan Martin

Say what you like about Nick Clegg (and history suggests you will in the comments), he’s certainly persistent. Despite approval ratings plummeting by over 100 points in five years, the Lib Dem leader continues to cling on to a uniquely creative interpretation of the polls: if only the public just saw that bit more of him, they’d all be wearing yellow rosettes. Or they’d at least think twice about slamming the door in the face of the activists who still wear them.

To that end, he really has gone out of the way to get his face out there, whether the public wants to look at it or not. There is his weekly LBC radio phone-in, where callers actually seem to have ceased ringing in purely to shout at him, his much-mocked YouTube apology and his brave but futile televised debate with Nigel Farage. Just last week, he appeared on Channel 4’s comedy show The Last Leg, where he actually made people laugh – with him, rather than at him, too, which was no doubt an unexpected bonus.

You can kind of understand Clegg’s belief in his own ability to change hearts and minds. He’s an accomplished media performer, and there’s a reason why he successfully spawned the horribly named Cleggmania, which saw his party’s ratings shoot from 16 to 34 per cent in a week. And even if Cleggmania proved to be a fad with a lifespan some houseflies would feel short-changed by, he does seem to surprise people when he appears on their screens and radios. The trouble is, that doesn’t translate into votes. Even if they don’t actively hate, people seem to feel total indifference: he doesn’t matter to them, and they’re not interested in hearing why he thinks he does.

No one denies Clegg is brave. You don’t see any other politician putting themselves up for public abuse in the way the Lib Dem leader has in the few years, but it doesn’t seem to be making any difference at all. In fact, polling released yesterday suggests he’ll lose his safe seat to Labour in May (despite some astonishingly hypocritical local campaign literature). Time is running out to change things, and the Lib Dems have neither deep pockets nor a sympathetic news network to help out. When you hit rock bottom, most people comfort themselves with the mantra that “the only way is up”, but that’s not actually true: you can plough on straight ahead, as Clegg’s trajectory seems to demonstrate.

So what’s left in the world of television that he hasn’t already tried? He could follow parliamentary colleagues George Galloway, Vince Cable, Nadine Dorries and Penny Mordaunt onto reality TV, but as they’ve taken Big Brother, Strictly, I’m a Celebrity and Splash respectively, it doesn’t leave much for him to work with. BBC Three’s Sexy Beasts would be a suitably last-ditch attempt, and being covered in monster make-up to the point of being unrecognisable might actually help with his pariah problem. Or perhaps he needs to be that bit more obvious, and try throwing Theresa May and Michael Gove into Room 101, alongside vote-winning popular bugbears like airline food and replacement bus services. Subtle as a neon brick to the face: “Electorate! I’m just like you!”

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Despite Clegg’s uniquely rapid rise and fall, softening public opinion about a politician usually takes decades, not the precious handful of days he has between now and polling day. Michael Portillo has put in hundreds of hours on the This Week sofa, and yes, has almost reached National Treasure status just 18 short years after he was forced – to use his own words – to “eat a bucket of shit in public.”  

Clegg doesn’t have that kind of time. Pushed away from TV debate centre-stage with the Greens and Plaid Cymru, it may be time to accept that having his own Portillo Moment in 89 days could be the only way to achieve the respect he craves. And that respect won’t come overnight. Not again.

Alan Martin (@alan_p_martin) is a freelance politics, science and technology writer