'I'd like to have an argument please...'
A day after his friend, mentor and former leader Paddy Ashdown turned his guns on David Cameron, Nick Clegg has called on all taking part in the Alternative Vote referendum campaign to "treat people like adults". When I spoke to him on the campaign trail he refused to comment on suggestions that the prime minister had broken his promise to keep a low profile in the campaign about changing Britain's voting system.
NR: Did David Cameron promise you that he would keep a low profile in this campaign?
NC: Look I don't want to go into conversations we have day in day out.
NR: You did - and I sense that he did- he's changed his mind.
NC: Look you're going to have to ask the Conservatives how they want to participate in the No campaign.
NR: To be fair, you see him every day and I don't - did he say to you.
NC: You ask the Conservatives, you ask David Cameron about that side of the story- as far as I am concerned, what I am not just me by the way- Ed Miliband, the leader of the Greens, the leader of the UK Independence Party - lots of people outside politics are all saying let's do something better - on the other side of the debate you have got the Conservatives, the BNP and the Communists - that speaks volumes about who is on either side of the debate.
I spoke to him after filming an extraordinary meeting in Abingdon near Oxford where the deputy prime minister spoke to local Lib Dems fighting to hold on to the council against a Tory challenge. One party activist expressed her concern that "I'm concerned, of course, like a lot of people about the public perception that you and David Cameron are coming closer and closer together and people can't see the difference between you." Another, a local Lib Dem councillor, told him that he was becoming "the butt of comedy" before asking him to widespread applause "Can you not have a slight argument with Mr Cameron?"
After the meeting I asked him whether there was a "phase two coming" for the coalition "where you think you can just take your jacket off and flex your muscles?" Yes, he told me, as the government carried on as "the manner of working together you know develops into a habit" then "of course people will start accentuating their differences just as much as you also need to decide on common policies for the national good".
NR: You said at the outset that it was responsible to work together and have your rows in private. Is there a phase two coming though where you think you can just take your jacket off and flex your muscles?
NC: Yes, I think inevitably as the government carries on, and sort of, the manner of working together you know develops into a habit if you like, clearly as you approach election times, and we're now in an election campaign period, people of course will start accentuating their differences just as much as you also need to decide on common policies for the national good.
Here are other extracts of what else he had to say:
Transcript extracts on AV:
NR: Paddy Ashdown has said to David Cameron - call the attack dogs off, do you agree?
NC: I think what we should do, what everyone should do on the Yes campaign and on the No campaign is at least treat people like adults. They don't want a mud slinging debate what they want to know is what is wrong with the present system - its deeply unfair, millions of people whose vote doesn't count and I think there is a strong case for AV particularly after the expenses scandal so politicians work harder for your vote - that is the simple decision to be made. Put it really simply if you want more MPs paying for duck houses then vote No, if you want a better politics vote Yes. That's my opinion and that's what I am going to be saying for the next few weeks.
NR: Your friend Paddy Ashdown, your friend, former leader says this is in danger of poisoning the mood in the coalition.
NC: I don't think for the remaining stages of this campaign it does anyone any good to replace simple, logical arguments about whether we actually improve the way we elect MPs so that MPs work harder for your vote with personal vitriol and mud slinging -I frankly don't think it will impress many people either. It is treating people like fools, people know they have to answer the simple question do you want the current system that produced the expenses scandal and all the rest of it, or do you want something better that's the question and frankly however much mud is slung that will remain the question until 5 May.
Transcript extracts on relations with Cameron and the Conservatives:
NR: Nick Clegg - there was one theme wasn't there (reference to filmed meeting) - they want you to have a row with David Cameron - these are your supporters...
NC: Yes well I think at election time it's inevitable isn't it. People want to get more tribal, they want to duff up the other side. It's a balance you need to strike in a coalition government, because clearly we are different parties, different leaders, different values. Always have been always will be, but you also need to work together in the national interest to thrash things out. So quite a lot of the differences and indeed arguments you have are necessarily arguments you have behind closed doors. But you know all my political life I've always believed you can have sincere differences with people, but still thrash out those differences in a civilized respectful manner rather than sort of mud slinging or hurling abuse at each other and that's kind of politics I am always going to try and stick to.
NR: Shouldn't you be a bit more like Vince Cable? I mean people know where he disagrees with David Cameron and they don't know where you do?
NC: I think they do actually. I think they do. You just need, you just have to look at the things I say week in week out where we clearly differ.
NR: Such as?
NC: If you look at things the Liberal Democrats have brought to this government, it wouldn't have happened without Liberal Democrats that we've now given a great tax break to 23 million base rate tax payers, that pensioners wouldn't have got a better deal that their pensions are now going up as of two weeks ago without Liberal Democrats. These are big big differences and we're not just making within the government but much more importantly we are making to people's everyday lives. But look, this is the first year in a five year Parliament. Where we are doing as a government really really difficulty things. Controversial things. Some downright unpopular things. If we don't do them, if we don't sort things out now we won't have a brighter better tomorrow that's why we're doing all this and I think it's right that in the coalition government we show, yes our differences, but that we remain capable of sorting out the country so it's better for future generations.