When Brand met Clegg: What comes first, country or constituency?

Paul Brand's blog: A day with Nick Clegg

As Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg helps run the country. But he still reckons he has time to run his own constituency too. He’s forever dropping references to Sheffield into press conferences and interviews, as if he’s totally in touch. But I wanted to know just how much of that is lip service – does he really get out to his seat as much as he implies?

I decided to spend the day with him in Sheffield Hallam; first stop, Totley Primary School.

We both make terrible puns about ‘cooking up policies’ as Nick Clegg dishes out free school meals (which he expanded in government to cover all under-7s). “I love getting out of stuffy Whitehall offices”, he tells me, as he shovels chips onto a tray (chips are just for Fridays, I’m assured). “I’m quite a gregarious individual”, he adds, “I love doing what I do with my constituents.”

And these are particularly bright and friendly children. They all correctly tell me that it’s Nick Clegg over there dishing up peas, and that he’s the Deputy Prime Minister. But when I ask them if they’ve ever seen him before in Sheffield, the answer is almost always no. “But he does go to the same hairdresser’s as me, which is a bit weird”, one of them giggles.

After a round of brilliantly curious questions (we find out he’s nervous when he meets the Queen, that he’d like a dog, and that he never planned to be a politician) it’s on to the next stop. Work Ltd helps adults with learning difficulties, and Nick Clegg is a patron. They’ve made the Christmas card he’ll send out to constituents, which he clearly approves of: “It’s stunning!”

And he may need to send out a few cards this year to butter up the voters. Recent polls suggest there are just a few points between him and his Labour rival in Sheffield Hallam. I ask him whether he’s suspiciously been in Sheffield a little more in recent months, as if he’s worried about the election. “I think that’s unfair”, he says, “I’ve always diligently kept up my constituency work…I enjoy it.”

The final stop is a strange paradox.

Totley Library was threatened with closure due to coalition cuts (executed by Sheffield Council), but Nick Clegg stepped in to campaign to keep it open. He’s here to do a shift with the volunteers, and tells me, “We’re all juggling things. It is right local authorities need to make savings. I think the choices about how you make savings vary from place to place. Are councils being sensible? I don’t think they are in my neck of the woods.”

Then comes an interesting revelation. Nick Clegg doesn’t just stack books – he’s written one. A novel, which he tells me is incredibly embarrassing and hidden away in a cupboard at home. Something about a man looking back on his life. “It’ll never be published”, he promises:

As for what he wants for Christmas, he’d like a book that’s a little better written. “I suppose the test of where your heart is, is where you’ll spend Christmas”, I suggest, “Sheffield or London?” The answer is neither. “We’ll be in Spain with my mother-in-law!” Quite a compromise.

And this may be Nick Clegg’s last Christmas juggling the two jobs. Next year there’s that pesky election. Will he still be running the country after May? Will he even be running a constituency?

Watch Paul Brand's full piece with Nick Clegg: