Just got back from Bath's opulent Guildhall, where the Deputy Prime Minister held a "question and answer session" with 200 voters. For most of it, he was stood no more than 18 inches in front of me, in such a manner that I could easily have kicked him hard in the nuts without even getting out of my chair.
I must report, with dishonour, that I failed you.
Remarkably, despite a heavy police presence, the untamed electorate was let in to the building with only cursory checks on bags, and no security checks at all for those of us not carrying one. You had to show photo ID at the door (I used my Bath Discovery card), but nobody was visibly taking note of names or anything. Had I had a gun or six-inch hunting knife about my person, nobody would have made any attempt to separate me from it before I entered the presence of the United Kingdom's second-in-command.
(I suspect this says more about the status of the office of Deputy PM than it does about the state's confidence in Bath's respectable law-abiding citizens, but it was a bit of a surprise all the same.)
Clegg entered the room from a side door, to a mixture of applause and very loud booing, which I don't think helps. If someone's come to answer your questions, don't make out before he's even opened his mouth that your mind's made up and he's wasting his time. If nothing else, it allows him to dismiss any legitimate grievances as kneejerk prejudice.
Annoyingly I didn't get to ask my question, which would have been something along these lines:
"In 2015, when you're asking for our vote again and signing your name to pledges promising what you'll do if you get it, should we believe you?"
I was quite pleased with it (especially the formulation "should we?" as opposed to "why should we?", and it would have been particularly instructive to hear his response in the light of the many weak excuses he made to defend the Lib Dems' betrayal over tuition fees. Now as I've said before, I don't actually feel that strongly about tuition fees per se, but Clegg's attempts at justification made me even angrier than I'd been already.
His line was basically "Labour and the Tories both wanted to raise fees and we didn't win the election, so as the minority party we had to compromise and we did the best deal we could in terms of the pupil premium and access for lower-income blah blah blah". Which is fine so far as it goes, but it raises a couple of fairly compelling issues.
1. The Lib Dems can't, presumably, have thought that in a hundred million years they might have won an outright majority in May. Given how stacked the First Past The Post system is against them, even if their pre-election poll ratings had held up rather than collapsing they'd have been third place by a long distance in terms of seats.
2. So why on Earth, given that situation, would you take the extraordinary step of signing an incredibly specific pledge that you knew you would have to not only break but do the exact opposite of, whichever party you formed a coalition with? Why, as the only party retaining any level of public trust whatsoever, would you so suicidally discredit yourselves when you didn't have to?
There are of course only two possible honest answers to that question. Either that you deliberately and cynically lied in order to grab the student vote, or that you expected the Tories to win an absolute majority, letting you vote against the fee increases piously (and equally cynically) from the impotent safety of opposition.
The former is a bit too guileless and short-sighted to be plausible, which only leaves the latter, and it would have been interesting to see how he tried to avoid it. Sadly, we'll never know. Clegg spent most of the hour spouting clearly prepared paragraphs of empty politician waffle so bland I had to keep digging my nails into my arm to stop my attention wandering off or getting my iPhone out for a quick game of Monsterball A.
The mask only slipped a couple of times, when he became quite venomous and animated in response to questions essentially implying that he was colluding in a right-wing Tory government, which of course he is. But the only question that clearly threw him a little and made him have to think on his feet was when WoSblog's own beloved associate Comrade John X asked him something close to this:
"Is there anything that has happened since the formation of the coalition government about which you've felt shame?"
Clegg stumbled around a bit and waffled some filler about the inevitability of compromise, dodging the question until John asked it again, at which point he managed to get out a "No", which was at least the straightest answer he'd given anyone all night.
(He'd managed to bluster around an excellent question from a young woman who'd asked, in the light of his professed great pride over the new student funding arrangements, whether he'd believed that that, or the very different proposals in the Lib Dem election manifesto, were the best way forward.)
At the end of the allotted hour, and not a minute over, he bid the audience farewell, said he'd enjoyed himself and disappeared as swiftly as he'd entered, leaving us no more enlightened than we'd been before we arrived. It was an expected, but still depressing, glimpse of the meaningless, empty future of British politics.
Up close he's surprisingly paunchy.