As if Nick Clegg hadn’t taken enough of a political beating of late. Last week, Britain’s embattled deputy prime minister had a run-in with the bulldog pensioner from Rochdale, England, Gillian Duffy, who became Gordon Brown’s scourge during the general election last year when the then-Labour PM was overheard calling her a “bigoted woman.” As Clegg, her most recent victim, entered a factory on a visit last week, Duffy—a Labour supporter—accosted him about whether he was happy with his Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition government’s policies.
Unlike “Bigotgate,” though, when Brown forgot that he was still wearing a microphone, Clegg was genial to the grandma and managed to get away unscathed. Sort of. Duffy’s question continued to resonate because what’s happening with the coalition government has brought Clegg to what may be the nadir of his political life, and his party to near single-figure lows in the opinion polls.
Quite a turn from Clegg’s arrival in his post. The Lib Dem leader rolled into the position on a wave of Cleggmania, seeing his poll ratings surge after emerging as the undisputed champion of the televised general election debates a year ago. He cheered the British electorate with calls for a “radical, reforming government,” adding that the Lib Dems would deliver something different from the “old parties.” Planting the seeds of future disappointment, he told them, “I believe the way things are is not the way things have to be.”
But after he and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron formed the country’s first coalition government in 65 years, things have soured for Clegg. Instead of political messiah, he’s now depicted as a punching bag in newspaper cartoons, a slave to Cameron’s master, or, as the Guardian put it, the PM’s “public school fag.”
This has to do with his party’s about-face on policy. The Lib Dems now support the very things Clegg promised they would not: painfully deep spending cuts that critics say will destroy the fabric of the country, and a hike in the value-added tax. Most of all, he peeved British students by supporting the tripling of tuition fees. Indeed, the very students who flooded social media with messages of praise during the general election dropped excrement in his mailbox because they believed him when he campaigned against an increase before the election last year.
Clegg was also fingered as a hypocrite for a recent attempt to promote social mobility. He called for an end to unpaid internships, saying career progression should not be determined by “who your father’s friends are.” The British press, naturally, pounced on the opportunity to point out that Clegg himself benefitted from his family’s “impeccable connections” when his father arranged his first internship (at a Finnish bank).
Politics aside, this unpopularity is taking a personal toll. In an “excruciating” interview with the New Statesman this month, Clegg was described as, “Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied.” He admitted that he cries while listening to music, reminding readers, “I’m a human being, I’m not a punch bag.” Gillian Duffy may have been right when she told Clegg during their run-in, “Let’s face it, it’s all gone wrong.”