Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg can't stay away from Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 23:53 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:37 20 February 2013
The greatest weaknesses Lib Dem leader and Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg has are his bluntness and honesty, he tells Chris Titley PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOAN RUSSELL
The last Yorkshireman to lead the Tories? William Hague. He gave up the job after a heavy defeat in the General Election seven long years ago. You have to go much further back to find a local man at Labour's helm. True, Harold Wilson did enjoy more success, winning four out five of the elections he contested; but he resigned way back in 1976.
So when Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg won the contest to take control of the Liberal Democrats in December 2007, it was about time too. What with the Prime Minister hailing from devolved Scotland and David Cameron's Eton and Berkshire background, it was about time proper politics had a dose of good old Yorkshire grit. Except that Nick isn't from the Broad Acres at all. In fact, as the Daily Telegraph noted, he's only a quarter English, the son of a Dutch mother and half-Russian father.
He was brought up in Chalfont St Giles, the archetypal Home Counties village, and educated at Westminster School. It was only three years ago that he parachuted into the steel city, winning Sheffield Hallam at the 2005 election. Perhaps it was his previous stint as a Euro MP in nearby Nottinghamshire or maybe it's his family background - many of his forebears on his father's side hail from Yorkshire - but he felt an instant affinity with the place he now represents.
'There's something very direct, very friendly, very unpretentious about everybody in Yorkshire and particularly in Sheffield that just suits me down to the ground,' he says. 'I have many weaknesses but one of the greatest is I'm too blunt and honest sometimes which certainly seems to suit the Yorkshire character.'
That candour got him into trouble in April when GQ magazine lured him into estimating the number of sexual partners he'd had (there were 'no more than 30' notches on the Clegg bedpost, if you missed it). But today he is keen to talk about a very different source of pride: the resurgence of the Lib Dems in Yorkshire.
MP Phil Willis 'is such a hero in Harrogate' (where the party will hold its spring conference next year); Greg Mulholland is an excellent new Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West; the council in Sheffield is doing a fine job, while 'Hull is a real flagship council for us. Just in the last year, because of some of the things the Liberal Democrats have been doing in Hull, we've cut crime by an astonishing amount, between 30 and 40 per cent.'
Meanwhile what Mr Clegg has experienced of Sheffield has fuelled his determination to make a difference. 'I'm an MP in a great Yorkshire city with an amazing community spirit but it's disfigured by massive inequalities of opportunity. One of the most shocking statistics is that a child born today in the poorest neighbourhood in Sheffield will die on average 14 years before a child born in the wealthiest neighbourhood.'
He describes the 'huge tragedy' of a Labour government which has presided over record levels of inequality. One of the reasons he went into politics was to fight for a fairer society, and that process should begin now with help for people struggling in the harsh new economic climate he argues. 'This is going to be a very miserable winter for lots of people,' said Mr Clegg. 'People will find it difficult to pay this winter's heating bill and might well find themselves defaulting on their mortgage payments and possibly having their homes repossessed.
'The most important thing we can do locally is set local authorities free from Treasury rules and restrictions, so they can borrow money against their own assets, buy up unsold property - of which there's quite a lot lying about at the moment - and boost social housing.We have a million fewer social homes now than we did at the time of the last property crash in 1992-93.'
With Gordon Brown and David Cameron, 41-yearold Nick Clegg is one of a new breed of political leader who divides his time between a high-flying career and a young family. He is married to Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, an international lawyer from Spain, and they have two sons aged six and four, with another boy on the way in February. Are they Yorkshiremen?
'No, my two sons were both born when we lived abroad,' he said. 'My wife is a partner in a law firm. She and I decided shortly after I got elected that there was no way we were both going to be able to work and be good parents if I was away from the children four or five days a week, which would have been the case if they'd carried on living in Sheffield.
'So we moved the kids to London and I come to Sheffield every week. Me and the children come at the weekends when we can. We've become a bit of a moving caravan of a family between Yorkshire and London - but the thing that's most important to me is we are together as much as we can be.'
Their Sheffield home is to the west of the city, close to open country and the Peak District National Park, a favourite place for family outings. Becoming Lib Dem leader has curtailed many of Mr Clegg's sporting passions - he used to play tennis, squash and football. Does that make him a fan of Sheffield United or Wednesday?
'I have a terrible confession to make, I'm neither,' he says. 'Which is not a bad thing given that my constituency seems to be completely divided between Owls and Blades fans.'
But where there was sport, today there are children. 'Almost every minute outside of politics now is taken up with the two little boys, and a third on the way. I'm discovering all the young pleasures of fatherhood - I'm just trying to teach my six-year-old how to throw a rugby ball.'
Before he went into politics, Nick Clegg was a journalist, reporting for the Financial Times.What question would he ask himself, if he'd been conducting this interview?
'Gosh . . . perhaps I'd ask myself if I ever expected things to turn out like this. To which the answer is no: I've never planned my life. I think it's very unwise in politics or in any walk of life to get fixated on particular expectations. 'I've just been very lucky. And one of the things I've been probably luckier about than anything else is to find myself as an MP in such a great and friendly city in a very friendly and down-to-earth county like Yorkshire.' Spoken like a true Tyke.