On that bright spring day in 2010, when David Cameron and Nick Clegg stood side by side in the Downing Street garden and talked idealistically about their hopes and dreams for the new coalition government, there was one word that no one would have dreamt of uttering.
It’s a grubby little one that’s since come to define both men in the public consciousness. The word is greed.
There’s been much indignation about Cameron’s frantic lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital in the darkest days of the pandemic – when he stood to make millions at a time of misery for so many – but, within his party, it’s hardly made him a pariah.
For Clegg, now banking each year a salary not unadjacent to £1 million as the public face of Facebook – the sprawling tech giant that symbolises almost everything his party is against – it’s infinitely more embarrassing, if not blasphemous, so far as his party faithful is concerned.
This is the company that stands accused of playing fast and loose with the privacy of its users, engaging in political manipulation – not least in relation to Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 US election – mass surveillance, disseminating fake news, conspiracy theories, hate speech, infringing copyright… you name it, Facebook has been accused of it. It’s not overstating it to say that Nick Clegg’s new role in life is gnawing away at the very soul of the Lib Dems.
During last year’s leadership election, I asked the rival candidates if they’d consider marking a new beginning for the party by expelling Clegg as a member. Layla Moran – who only became an MP four years after the coalition had come to an end – said she’d her own views on how Clegg had conducted himself since leaving office, but, ahead of the ballot and aware he still had his supporters in the party, she was reluctant to get into it.
Davey, a minister in the coalition government and knighted for his service, was more offended by the suggestion. He saw nothing to apologise for when it came to either the coalition or Clegg – and, no, of course, he wouldn’t chuck his old friend out.
Among the party’s younger members – the ones who joined after 2016, when it was committed to reversing the EU referendum result – there is, however, widespread revulsion about Clegg. I’d hear them at fringe meetings mentioning his name with contempt in their voices.
These were the people who paid the price – quite literally – for his broken manifesto pledge on tuition fees and for whom the job at Facebook confirmed an impression of a man with no moral fibre whatsoever.
Vince Cable had the thankless task of taking over from Clegg after he quit the party leadership in the aftermath of its drubbing in the 2015 election. There is little love lost between the two men, and, in a sense, that symbolises the party’s unease with itself and its identity.
Cable is spiritually and philosophically a New Labour man. He’d originally been a Labour member and worked as a special adviser to John Smith, when he was trade secretary. Predictably, when the election result of 2010 was hanging in the balance, he was pushing hard for the Lib Dems to go into coalition not with the Tories, but Labour.
“Vince may have made his views known, but Nick looked at Brown and he looked at Cameron and inevitably he saw in the latter – another slick public schoolboy with experience of public relations – the man he could do business with,” one senior Lib Dem tells me. “With hindsight, we can all see now that it was a fork in the road for the party and country, and I’d say a tragic one, given what then followed.”
He insists that the pre-coalition Clegg was “genuinely a good guy, with a real determination to make the world a better place.” He adds: “Cameron turned out to be a bad influence on him. It quickly became a prefect-fag relationship. Nick was terrified of annoying Cameron and he set the narrative that it was all sweetness and light between us and the Tories.
“We weren’t to speak out of turn and he said to me once, when I was grumbling, ‘grow up – this is real life, mate. This is what power is’. It was obviously a heady time for us – suddenly all the police and the security barriers at our party conferences and the ministerial limos – but, underneath the surface, there were real tensions building up. We didn’t want to be Tories, but that was what it felt like we were becoming.”
He said Clegg had been an accessible and easy-going party leader, but, after he went into government, he became remote and isolated and this made matters worse. “I suppose he cocooned himself because he knew what a lot of us wanted to say to him. He had a tiny handful of people he trusted – Danny Alexander was one – who were essentially echo chambers. The rest of us would talk about getting an ‘an audience with Nick’, because then it got to be a really big deal to get to see him.”
Books and even screenplays have been written about the coalition years – and everyone has formed an unalterable view on them now, one way or another – but less well-documented has been the problem the party faced in handling Clegg after he stepped down as leader.
Mark Leftly was Cable’s press secretary during the period he led the Lib Dems. Now head of public affairs at Powerscourt Group, he is one of the few willing to go on the record. He talked to me about the party having a certain amount of cognitive dissonance where Clegg was concerned.
“The most influential people behind the scenes come and go at other parties, but, in the Lib Dems, the same faces remain – sometimes from the same families – for years,” he explains. “What struck me was that there was a stubborn perception among many of them that Nick had been rehabilitated in the eyes of the public, just a couple of years after the 2015 election.
“Appreciating and praising his outstanding achievements on same-sex marriage and the personal allowance is one thing, not recognising that he was, unfortunately, still toxic from a public relations and political point of view was quite another. There was this desire to heavily promote an event he was taking part in at the 2018 Lib Dem conference.
“They seemed to think if they were star-struck by him, the rest of the population was, too. They didn’t understand that his rehabilitation among the electorate had not even started at that point and that his presence was potentially quite challenging.”
Another source claims that Clegg had almost gone out of his way to make life difficult for Cable when he accepted the job at Facebook. “Nick met Vince at the PinkNews Awards in October 2018 and they had a really long chat in a discreet corner, out of earshot, and Vince emerged saying he felt they’d got along really well,” she tells me.
“A matter of days later, Clegg dropped the Facebook bombshell. At that very point, we were calling for the technology companies to pay their fair share of taxes and act responsibly, and Nick’s announcement, out of the blue, with no advance warning, totally wrong-footed us. Vince was hurt that he hadn’t thought to mention it when they’d met.”
The investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, writing an open letter to Clegg in the Guardian, spoke for a great many Lib Dem members when she told him: “You don’t seem to have grasped that the crisis gripping Britain and the one gripping Facebook are one and the same. They’re manifestations of each other. It isn’t technology that has blown apart our world – it’s Facebook’s business model. It’s the monetisation of fear and hatred and lies. And what we’re witnessing here in Britain is a compromised government colluding with a compromised technology platform to cover up the truth of what happened in the EU referendum.”
To make matters still worse, Clegg went on to claim £113,000 in parliamentary expenses, for which he was eligible as a former deputy PM, for performing public duties – almost the maximum amount permitted – during the 2018/19 period, despite being on the Facebook payroll for five months of that time.
Clegg is often dismissively described as a PR man for Facebook, but, as vice president for global affairs and communications, some insiders tell me he is essentially number three in what is arguably the world’s most powerful conglomerate.
They add that his official salary is likely to pale in comparison to what he is actually making out of Facebook, when share options and other perks are taken into account. “He is in another stratosphere now, compared to the people he used to hang out with,” I am told. “He’s amassed enough money already to spend the rest of his life sunning himself beside a pool in the Caribbean if that’s what he chooses to do.”
Residing now in a £7 million mansion in Atherton, near San Francisco, three miles from the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Clegg is obviously preoccupied with his new job and life with his lawyer wife Miriam González Durántez and their three children. But when he can find the time, he tries to make amends with his disaffected followers back home.
There was a £10,000 donation to the Scottish Lib Dems, and he picked a fight with the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre – the man all liberals love to hate – in his long-running campaign to take over at the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom.
Clegg also personally announced Donald Trump’s two-year ban from Facebook, even if it seemed no more than a gesture since he could resume his presence on the platform in time for the next American election.
For all that’s happened, Clegg still has his fans. Substantial figures in the Lib Dems such as Alistair Carmichael and Sir Norman Lamb still talk about him with dewy-eyed admiration, and Sylvie Bermann, the former French ambassador to the UK, volunteered, when I spoke to her earlier this year, how charming and impressive she had always found him.
Once desperate in the early days of his political career to get all the publicity he could, the man himself now grants interviews only occasionally and judiciously. Tom Brake, the former Lib Dem MP, invited me to interview Clegg on stage at a fringe meeting at the party’s 2018 conference in Brighton.
Brake is an old school Lib Dem and may well have put my name forward with a certain sense of mischief as he knew I wouldn’t give him an easy ride. Clegg, when he finally found out about it, was having none of it. Just days before I was due to interrogate him, if I am to believe the official version of events, there was a sudden startling awareness that I was not a woman.
“I am really sorry, but because the party are paying for the fringe with Nick (this wasn’t the original plan) they are insisting that there is a woman on the panel,” Brake emailed me. “So that means you cannot do it. Really sorry, as I know you would have been excellent in the role.”
If I ever do get to ask the questions, my first one to Clegg – or Sir Nick, as we must now, of course, address him – would be: “Why did you sell out?” It’s certainly the one that a great many of his supporters – especially from the early days – still want answered.