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Sunday 18 December 2011

Nick and Dave still wedded

The British prime minister is in tune with the public in a way that Nick Clegg is not, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'The sight of Cameron and Clegg staring fondly into each other's eyes," wrote the journalist Richard Littlejohn in May 2010, "stands in welcome contrast to the ghastly, self-serving politics of venality, resentment, hatred and mendacity honed and prosecuted by Gordon Brown."

And so it did. What Littlejohn christened the "Brokeback Mountain-style love-in" was a real pleasure to the many voters who were sick of dirty, angry politics. Seeing a coalition negotiated with grace, courtesy and even humour raised national morale.

The problems David Cameron and Nick Clegg have in their relationship are personality clashes. These two clever, reasonable, courteous and charming products of first-rate public schools (Eton and Westminster) and universities (Oxford and Cambridge) get on just fine. Born only three months apart (they are 45 and 44), there isn't that much to choose between their politics -- except when it comes to Europe. Both are socially liberal modernisers who believe in free trade and responsible capitalism, care about civil liberties and are suspicious of statism.

Clegg has questioned -- but not denied -- that he joined the Conservative Association at Cambridge, and it was a Conservative European Commissioner, Leon Brittan, who, in 1995, plucked Clegg from a job in the commission dealing with aid and installed him as his EU policy adviser and speech writer.

In the early 1980s, Brittan had been home secretary under Margaret Thatcher, but in Europe, like most commissioners, he had gone native and shared the cosmopolitan Clegg's enthusiasm for most things European. Half-Dutch, and partly Russian, Clegg has worked in many parts of the world and speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish; his three sons with his wife, international lawyer Miriam Gonzalez Durantes, are bilingual.

Looking for a life in politics, it was no surprise that Clegg opted for the EU-enthusiastic Liberal Democrats -- the only British party committed to joining the euro -- and became an MEP for five years from 1999. In 2005, he won a seat in Westminster, and two years later was the party leader.

Cameron, meanwhile, had stayed close to home as a rising star in the Conservative Research Department. While he was no Europhobe, he was badly scarred by the events of 'Black Wednesday', September 16, 1992. He was special adviser to the chancellor of the exchequer, Norman Lamont, when John Major's government, beleaguered by currency speculators, was forced to pull sterling out of the ERM -- the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

It took years for the Conservatives to recover from that humiliation and it hardened the position of a naturally Eurosceptical party. Cameron isn't a Little Englander, but -- like his wife Samantha, a designer and businesswoman -- his background is solidly English upper middle class and his entire working life has been spent in London. An MP since 2001, like Clegg he became leader of his party at dizzying speed, winning in 2005 with a brilliant and risky speech, for Cameron has guts and takes chances.

Cameron's critics, Right and Left, often dismiss him as shallow and lightweight, but that is to ignore his experience of dealing with disability and tragedy. His stockbroker father's legs were deformed and, throughout his life, he had to endure pain, indignity and many operations; Cameron's first child, Ivan, had cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Even their worst enemies have to admit that David and Samantha Cameron rose to this challenge with extraordinary fortitude and devotion, and smothered Ivan in love and care throughout his six years of painful life.

This experience toughened Cameron and ensured that politics does not consume him.

If Cameron and Clegg have differences of view and emphasis on Europe, they are not deal-breakers. Clegg is far more realistic about the EU and the euro than are most of his party, while Cameron is far more inclined to compromise that most of his.

Still, when the chips are down, as they were in the all-night discussions over a fiscal pact to save the euro, Cameron will always put British interests first.

He's in tune with the public in a way that Clegg is not, and for him there was no alternative to the veto. Polls show that voters are on his side by a margin of four to one.

While they don't think he gained much -- if anything -- by the gesture, they think it was time their prime minister stood up to the incompetents and grandstanders who created the unworkable euro, ran it badly and haven't the vision or courage to save it.

The Lib Dems have been hysterical, Clegg has been forced to flip-flop, some Tories have been triumphalist and the media are talking up splits, but Cameron and Clegg understand the strains the other is under and are quietly determined to keep the coalition together.

The first fine careless rapture may be a memory, but the marriage is still intact.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards