"Presentation, presentation, presentation:" if Nick Clegg is ever to adopt a mantra, then this should probably be it. A recent TV appearance saw him admitting to old bat-ears Andrew Marr that any major differences between himself and his only challenger for the coveted title of Liberal Democrat leader, the party’s Environment spokesman Chris Huhne, lies in style rather than substance.
Clegg has a point, even if it is made somewhat cynically in an attempt to dispel rumours of backbiting. The Public Whip reveals that in the current parliamentary session, Clegg and Huhne have voted the same way in 96.1% of motions they both attended. Cursory glances at both contenders' campaign material reveal broadly similar political focuses, with the environment, community issues, and national security emerging as key areas of interest shared between the two.
The superior style seems, for now, to be triumphing: shortly before the time of going to press, bookmakers William Hill had him as 2/7 favourite, with Huhne lagging behind at 5/2. Since it’s the man, and not necessarily the politician, who is winning the race, it’s only fitting, to have a good long look at Clegg. Come Christmas, he will most likely have succeeded his former boss Ming The Merciless – to whom he always was, most categorically, loyal.
Clegg was born in 1967 to a cosmopolitan family – he has Russian noble heritage, no less. He attended the prestigious Westminster School, whose alumni include Sir Christopher Wren, A.A. Milne and Andrew Lloyd Weber. So far, so decidedly uninspiring. However, it was during his time at Westminster that Clegg, on an exchange trip to Germany, was arrested for arson after setting a rare cactus collection aflame. Unfortunately, what could otherwise be seen as a street-cred boosting affirmation of liberal credentials is somewhat overshadowed by revelations about his rival, Chris "drugs are nice" Huhne. He had to win on something.
After graduating from Cambridge (naturally), Clegg went on to do further, politically-focused study in the USA and Belgium – a slippery slope. Next came a short-lived but fairly illustrious journalistic career. Despite having a glut of prizes (well, at least two) heaped upon him, Clegg tired of all the attention and took himself off to Brussels in 1994 to undertake a relatively obscure role in the European Commission: good preparation for his political future, you might say, and no doubt his much-touted multilinguism came in handy.
He spent the next five years fretting over Russia and getting married, before giving it all up in 1999 for the dubious honour of becoming Lib Dem MEP for the East Midlands. This alone not being sufficiently exciting, Clegg also became Trade and Industry spokesman for the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party. But even this couldn’t hold Clegg’s attention for long. He eventually stood down in 2004, complaining of being tired of hovering "outside the main arteries of political debate" – possibly not the most opportune phrase to ever trip off a Lib Dem’s tongue.
Oddly enough, Clegg’s departure proved quite timely and a matter of months later, he became MP for Sheffield Hallam, his current constituency. He has been Foreign Affairs spokesman, and, since 2006, 'Shadow' Home Secretary.
Impressive, and indicative of true breadth of experience this may well be, although some would argue that Clegg does not have enough of a parliamentary background to merit election as party leader just yet. What is more interesting, however, is what some see as Clegg’s lack of traditional Liberal values. Certain sections of the media have even alleged that he may have right-wing tendencies; others have gone further, hinting at parallels between Clegg and one Mr David Cameron. Clegg has since responded to these allegations by creating yet another PR storm: interestingly, rather than simply negating rumours about his rightward leanings, Clegg instead preferred to voice his desire to ‘cast the spotlight’ on Cameron, and to ask him "if you are a liberal, why are you leading a party which is so illiberal?" Clegg seems to be implying that he isn’t too conservative; rather, David Cameron isn’t Conservative enough.
This really misses the point. The most convincing parallels between Clegg and Cameron have been drawn on the basis, not of politics, but on the whiff of over-spin which hangs heavily over both of them. As The Observer cheekily suggested, Clegg is the Cameron to Huhne’s David Davis – he’s simply much better at pressing all the right buttons, despite his professed distaste for "the politics of the marketing man."
Even his supporters are aware of the importance of image to Clegg’s bid for leadership. His campaign team has a YouTube presence, with one video seeing a box-ticking selection of Clegg acolytes enthusing about their man. One of their main reasons cited for Clegg’s appeal? His ability to draw those not typically within the Lib Dem remit to the party.
Certainly, if his campaign website is to be believed, Clegg "has an appeal to people of all ages and of all backgrounds." Implicitly, this includes students. Clegg’s background in academia (he spent brief spells lecturing at Sheffield and Cambridge), however, doesn’t seem to have led him to develop any great interest in student issues, on which he is far from forthcoming. A recent visit to Edinburgh University Liberal Democrats – albeit in his capacity as Home Affairs spokesman – concentrated on civil liberties, arguably missing out on an opportunity to consolidate student support prior to Campbell’s resignation. Even a more recent visit to The University of Surrey with Huhne, saw Clegg focusing generally on the party’s future and only taking what the University’s Bare Facts news site refers to as "carefully vetted" questions.
All this seems to matter little, however. Lib Dem students – at Edinburgh at least – are backing Clegg; Ross Stalker, Vice-President of EULD, told The Journal that most of their committee members are "confirmed Clegg supporters." For certain other students, Clegg has a more particular appeal. The "Nick Clegg is more of a hottie than David Cameron any day" Facebook group, set up after the Cameron original got a mention at the Tory conference, now boasts over seventy members. No such group exists for poor old Huhne.
As the two-horse race draws to a close, then, Clegg’s Red Rum is inching ahead of Huhne’s Mr Ed. Clegg is adamant that voters are "fed up with tough talking and posturing." Let’s hope for his sake, then, that style doesn't necessarily mutually exclude substance, as come December 17, he’s probably going to be held to his word.