The Financial Times has shocked Westminster with an astonishing scoop: Nick Clegg, the former deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, is leaving the United Kingdom to take a job as Facebook’s head of global policy and communications – in other words, as its chief lobbyist.
It’s an astute hire on Facebook’s part. In Clegg, they are signing a politician who is both well-versed in the relevant policy issues, but is also intimately acquainted with the key power players in the European Union, the toughest regulatory area that the social media juggernaut has to operate in.
In addition to the connections acquired during his five years as a member of the European Parliament, Clegg has experience of how the European Commission operates – having worked as an aide to Leon Brittan when he was Commissioner for Competition (the same brief which is giving Facebook so much grief now) – and he is well-connected to the flavour of rightish liberalism that, thanks to the proportional systems that dominate the politics of most European countries, is guaranteed a presence in the corridors of power even if it is only as the junior partner in a coalition.
The one arena in which Clegg is not a major asset to Facebook is in his domestic market: the parts of the Conservative Party which didn’t resent coalition with him are in perhaps permanent eclipse , while Labour’s distaste for Liberal Democrats in general, and Clegg in particular, is still strong. But after Brexit, the United Kingdom will be a peripheral player in the games of global regulation that Facebook plays and Clegg’s Europe-wide connections are far more valuable than any negative comment the hire will attract in the British media.
For Clegg, the job will be a well-paid opportunity to experience work in another country and to throw himself into a new challenge. His frustration at the direction of the Liberal Democrats, who are at present ruling out a return to coalition in any shape or form had grown in recent months according to allies of the former deputy prime minister. But it is a disappointment considering the aims he had when he resigned as Liberal Democrat leader. Then, he hoped to play an influential role in the United Kingdom’s drugs policy debate, something he considered unfinished business from the coalition. (It was a source of frustration to drugs policy reformers in the Liberal Democrats that they felt that David Cameron was privately with them on the need to rethink the drug war but never had the courage to face down his party’s own authoritarians.)
Now he is quitting British politics entirely and it is difficult to see how he will ever be able to finesse a return. It is also a sign of a lack of confidence in the prospects for Brexit to be stopped. As one close ally of Clegg’s recently remarked to me, it took the shock of Brexit to break Clegg “out of his PTSD [at the coalition and the loss of so many Liberal Democrats]” and his opposition to the vote was one of the few animating causes where his voice still carried weight. His decision to jump sticks will be seen as a lack of faith in the ability of the People’s Vote campaign to reverse Brexit – though perhaps, if they could stop Brexit, Clegg might not be quite such an asset to Facebook.