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What did Nick Clegg get up to at Cambridge?

As a student, the future Lib Dem leader eschewed politics and trained as a thespian. It was the ideal preparation for a modern politician, says Ross Clark

28 April 2010

12:00 AM

28 April 2010

12:00 AM

I am not sure that I quite envy James Delingpole, cast as a teddy bear-carrying social climber in When Boris Met Dave, Channel 4’s drama-documentary about the future Tory leader’s time at Oxford. But I do feel a bit peeved that my generation is about to seize power and I can’t even claim a bit part. If Channel 4 were minded to delve into Nick Clegg’s time at Cambridge I wouldn’t even make that — for the simple reason that in the three years I spent there with him I failed even to hear of him.

Failing to meet the man who this time next week may be power-broking the next government of the United Kingdom might be understandable had I spent more time in libraries and laboratories. But I was fascinated by politics at the time. I was a member of the Conservative Association (CUCA), the Liberal Democrat/SDP Alliance, the Union Society, the lot. It ought to have been impossible for me not to meet a future political phenomenon. But I didn’t. And what’s more, after a ring-around of politically minded friends I still can’t find anyone who ever did bump into him. Little would I have guessed that the future Lib Dem leader was not to be found among the earnest student politicians at the Union Society, but treading the boards next door at the Amateur Dramatic Club (ADC) theatre as the HIV-positive lover of a gay activist.

Maybe the youthful Clegg was trying to make himself invisible. He chose Robinson College, then the newly founded baby of local philanthropist David Robinson, founder of the Radio Rentals chain. Although fairly central to the town, and just across the road from the university library, it certainly wouldn’t have been a natural choice for an undergraduate who wanted to flaunt his background from a leading public school — unless, that is, his priority was a private bathroom. But neither was it especially dominated by state school entrants: it was the sort of place you might well expect to find an unshowy undergraduate in a sweater, whose dad later turned out to be on the Sunday Times rich list. It was certainly in keeping with the image of Nick Clegg, who has shown far more hang-ups about his privileged upbringing than has David Cameron. The most revealing sentence in the piece Nick Clegg penned for the Guardian in 2002 and which was cited last week by the Daily Mail as evidence of a supposedly less than patriotic attitude, was when he spoke of his German exchange partners having ‘already endured a month at our school in central London’. Perhaps he intended a casual reader to interpret that as meaning an inner-city comprehensive.

Student politics at Cambridge in the late 1980s was a much more serious-minded business than at Oxford. I knew little about the university left, who boycotted the ‘elitist’ Union Society and wrote Stalinist-style letters to any Labour MP who thoughtlessly accepted an invitation, threatening to write to their constituency parties. But the Lib Dem and Tory wannabes I knew well.

Cambridge Conservatives were divided into so-called Disraelians — the Cameron equivalents who believed that university was a place for enjoying yourself and that political careers should only begin afterwards, in the real world. More dominant, though, were the ‘Activists’, who threw themselves into political campaigning. Pointedly, neither group in the 1980s produced anyone who is now in the front line of political life.

The Disraelians tried hard to emulate the lifestyle of Oxford’s elite, but even in the high days of the 1980s they struggled to make an impression. Their daddies were not rich enough — and certainly not as wealthy as Clegg’s dad. In contrast to the landowners’ sons who filled the Bullingdon, the fathers of many of Cambridge’s student elite were — shock, horror — in trade. They tried to disguise it: Peter Halford, who was sadly to die in a car accident shortly after leaving Cambridge, pronounced his name ‘Hallford’ to disguise the fact his money came from the car accessories chain.

Cambridge had a pale imitation of the Bullingdon Club — the Grafton — which as far as I remember had an annual ‘breakfast’, winding up 24 hours after it began with prawn cocktails at the Berni Inn. But it didn’t help that it shared its name with a frumpy shopping centre; few undergraduates would even have heard of the dining society. There was also a private club for public schoolboys — the Pitt Club — which, in contrast to the excesses of Oxford at the time, got into financial trouble and ending up sharing its premises with a pizza parlour.

The Activists were always more likely to produce a future Cabinet minister. There was no outrageous Boris figure. They dressed and conducted themselves as Dave does now: in mufti. They took student elections with a seriousness which still stuns me — and certainly put me off any idea of a political career. When CUCA elected a chairman, which it did every term, candidates would spent two weeks creeping around the colleges with a list of CUCA members — all this would take an election for a chairman, whose eight-week-long term of office consisted of little more than the duty of introducing Cecil Parkinson, Leon Brittan or the remarkable number of then Cabinet ministers who considered it worthwhile driving up to Cambridge on a Sunday to speak to a bunch of undergraduates. They certainly didn’t go round like Boris, pretending to be members of the Gay Alliance. They would earnestly defend privatisation, Clause 28 and the like. Several of these political obsessives crowned off their Cambridge careers by standing — in the middle of finals — in the city council elections. I have never voted Conservative with such enthusiasm, reckoning that it would kill off their careers if they kept having to return to Cambridge for council meetings.

The contrast between student politics at Oxford and Cambridge at the time was symbolised once a year when Oxonians would come over for an annual debate. While the committee of the Cambridge union sat in sensible sweaters, Oxford’s president would turn up in a kilt and make outrageously camp speeches. Few would have picked him out as the one who would evolve into a deeply serious politician, but he did: he was Michael Gove.

A fat lot of good the sensible sweaters did the Cambridge hacks. The walls of the Union Society groaned with photographs of then Tory ministers in their younger days: Kenneth Clarke, Norman Lamont, Michael Howard and Nick Clegg’s sometime mentor Leon Brittan. Yet only one Cambridge Tory of my time has made it into parliament: Fulham MP Greg Hands, who is also credited for recruiting Nick Clegg into CUCA (although there is no evidence that Clegg ever attended a CUCA meeting). A bevy of them have, however, finally crawled into the unglamorous world of local government, most notably Stephen Greenhalgh, now leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

The Liberal/SDP Alliance of late 1980s Cambridge has produced as many future Tory MPs as did CUCA: it was run by Greg Clark, now shadow energy secretary. If I had been told then that a future Lib Dem leader was among us I would have had my money on him or Robert Chote, now passing verdict on the parties’ spending pledges as head of the Institute of Fiscal Studies. But an even more likely choice would have been the union president Martin Tod. Tod was the Martin Luther King of proportional representation: he swelled with passion whenever the subject was mentioned. I have never been to a debate with such power and fury on one side — and bewildered indifference on the other. But then Tod went off, like a remarkable number of union presidents of the time, to sell toothpaste for Procter & Gamble. A quick bit of googling reveals that
after at least one failed attempt to get into parliament he is now standing as the Lib Dem candidate for Winchester to replace the hapless Mark Oaten. His ticket is parochial even by Lib Dem standards: to get the Guildhall clock running again, to reopen the public loos in Alresford and to provide an extra dentist for Winchester. Maybe the fluoride toothpaste sales didn’t go too well in that part of the world.

Studying the inevitable photograph of Tod shaking hands with his party leader for the election publicity shots, there are echoes of Boris and Dave: the ambitious student politician who seemed destined for a high-profile political career (albeit a Lib Dem one) who ends up playing second fiddle to a man who ignored the world of student politics altogether.

What nobody seemed to foresee — I don’t expect even Nick Clegg did — was that post-Blair, the qualifications for political leadership in Britain would change so dramatically. All those hours spent fine-tuning the art of canvassing, debating, campaigning: they are worthless against a thespian training. Clearly, all those Tory and Lib Dem activists should have been receiving direction from the precocious Sam Mendes — even if Mendes seems to have failed to teach Britain’s new political star the first lesson wannabe actors are taught at primary school: ‘get your hands out of your pockets.’

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