Nick Clegg slides from hero to "villain"

LONDON (Reuters) - He’s had dog poo shoved into his letter box, he can’t cycle to work for fear of attack and students hang his effigy in the streets.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, delivers his speech at his party's conference in Liverpool September 20, 2010. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Britain, it might seem, has fallen out of love with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

Seven months after joining a coalition government forcing through deep austerity cuts, the 43-year-old Liberal Democrat leader is no longer the pin-up for change in British politics.

Clegg outshone his better known rivals in TV debates before the May election and “I agree with Nick” became an unlikely political catchphrase.

Now policy reversals on the pace of spending cuts and university fees have angered supporters and weakened his party’s standing. Its opinion poll rating has halved since the election.

Clegg and the Lib Dems are in danger of suffering lasting damage which may translate into election losses and even spoil the party’s appetite for its role as junior partner in David Cameron’s coalition.

“Nick Clegg was a bit of a hero, if only because he wasn’t from the two old parties -- he was something new,” said Joe Oliver, a student union officer in Sheffield -- the northern English city where Clegg has his parliamentary constituency.

“People have stopped trusting him. He just seems to be one of the most hated people in Sheffield, if not the country.”

Students, who have protested in their thousands over a government plan to raise tuition fees, feel especially aggrieved with Clegg, who campaigned on a pledge to abolish the fees.

Clegg, an expensively-educated linguist, stands accused of promising much in bringing his party back to government after 60 years, but lacking the clout to deliver.

“This is very much what was feared when the coalition was created,” said Simon Lee, a politics lecturer at the University of Hull in northern England.

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“It suits the Cameron agenda to put forward, because of the fiscal situation, proposals which will appeal to the economic liberals in the Lib Dems but which will also alienate the social liberals -- we’re seeing those divisions.”


Clegg has secured heavyweight backing from former party leader Paddy Ashdown.

“I personally think that Nick has handled this with great wisdom and a good deal of courage,” he told BBC Radio this week.

More student demonstrations and anti-Clegg gestures are expected across England on Thursday to coincide with a parliamentary vote on the university fee increase.

It will be the first test of Clegg’s ability to take his party with him on unpopular measures. Some Lib Dems have pledged to abstain or even oppose it, although not enough to scupper it.

It is a far cry from May when the former EU lawmaker whizzed around Britain in an orange bus wooing voters with a vision of a new, honest politics that would fix a system soiled by a lawmakers’ expenses scandal.

The party he has led since 2007 is now facing the brunt of public anger over a Conservative-led austerity plan which it didn’t campaign on.

“If you stand up before an election and you sign and defend a specific pledge and then, purely because you form a coalition, you argue the circumstances have changed... In the eyes of the electorate, why should they trust you again?” Lee said.

Aides to Clegg argue that the party would rather be involved in making policy than not. They dismiss rumours of fissures in a coalition that is barely seven months old.

“The markets are responding to the stability and collegiate policymaking that the coalition has offered,” one aide said.

Clegg’s party looks set to cope with the thorny tuition fee vote, but a referendum on the voting system in May 2011 will prove a far stiffer test for the coalition, given the Lib Dems want to change the way Britons vote and the Conservatives do not.

If the Lib Dems lose the referendum -- the main concession they won in the coalition agreement -- the party may begin to seriously question what is getting out of government and what kind of leader they have in Clegg.