Nick Clegg targets Brexiters in drive-by shooting

John Crace
Nick Clegg now has a full-time career being a professional Nick Clegg. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Vince Cable had spent the morning giving a speech on Taming the Tech Giants. Almost entirely for his own benefit as the event went almost entirely unnoticed and unreported. Taming indifference is Vince’s real problem these days. Hard to believe given the party’s standing under Tim Farron, but the Liberal Democrats have slid even further into irrelevance with Cable as their leader.

Over at the Institute for Government, an upstairs room was packed for a lunchtime discussion with the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. It was so rammed that latecomers were forced to watch proceedings on a TV in the annexe. Say what you like about the man who set his party back a generation by taking it into coalition with the Tories, but he’s still got pulling power.

Not that Clegg has any interest in being anyone’s leader in exile. He’s got over the disappointment of losing his seat at the last election and now has a full-time career being a professional Nick Clegg. He is seldom off the airwaves, has written a book called How to Stop Brexit and has now even got this season’s must-have accessory for the celebrity politician: a podcast. The first episode on anger management with special guest Nigel Farage has just been recorded. Apparently the earth moved for both of them.

Since the referendum, Clegg has been a poster boy for remainers everywhere. Wind him up and off he goes. Sure enough, within seconds of his introduction, he was up and running on Brexit. At the start it felt as though Clegg was on autopilot, delivering a performance he had given dozens of times before as he played his greatest hits.

Brexit was a disaster, but it could still be stopped if MPs were brave enough to vote with their conscience. The negotiations were doomed because British politicians fundamentally did not understand the nature of trade and were constricted by their own policy narcissism. All familiar stuff, but no one minded as this was what they had come for. To hear their views articulated and to be offered just a chink of hope that it was not all going to end catastrophically.

It was only about halfway in that Clegg appeared to get fully engaged. At that point, he chose to engage in a spot of drive-by shooting. First in his sights was Liam Fox. The international trade secretary was a useless halfwit who could probably be duped into accepting a customs union providing he was allowed to still ponce around the world clocking up air miles on imaginary deals with imaginary friends. Bang, bang.

Next to take the hit were David Davis and John Redwood. Both were hypocrites for having completely forgotten they had once called for a second referendum. Bang, bang. Jeremy Corbyn? The nostalgia choice for “small C conservatives” with a preference for sepia-tinted socialism. If Labour had a halfway decent leader, it would be 20 points ahead in the polls right now. Bang, bang.

As the body count crept up, Clegg began to look more engaged. Almost as if he was enjoying himself. In a supreme act of deferred gratification, he chose to save the best till last. Theresa May had allowed herself to be guided by two immature and overexcitable special advisers. Clegg smiled. Who wouldn’t enjoy taking out Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill as collateral damage?

Whatever. During her time as home secretary, May had introduced stupid and nasty immigration policies and the blame for the treatment of the Windrush generation fell entirely on her. Three for the price of one. Bang, bang. Bang, bang. Bang, bang.

With his bloodlust sated, the interview came to a close and Clegg made a dash for the exit, only to re-emerge a couple of minutes later and sprint out another side door. It never hurts to stay one step ahead of his enemies. Especially when there were so many.