Nick Clegg hit the campaign trail for the last time yesterday, jetting to Edinburgh (where the party could lose half its seats), then down to Stockport (where it could lose control), and then catching the train over to his constituency home in Sheffield.
It’s a grinding schedule, especially as the Lib Dems prepare for another year of heavy local government losses as they continue to suffer for their decision to join the Tories in government. The party could end up losing councils across the country: Cardiff, Stockport, Burnley, Cheltenham, and in other places it could be wiped out altogether.
You might expect Clegg to be jaded, especially as he visits places he’s expected to lose. But if the Lib Dem leader was tired, he didn’t show it. Far from it, as he turned on the charm for voters in a chip shop on a grey suburban shopping precinct in Stockport, it became clear why voters had taken to him so enthusiastically in 2010.
Putting aside Clegg’s policies and record in government, it was very clear just how good at stump politics he is – especially for someone whose background is almost purely in the corridors of power – whether in Brussels or London.
This was not a friendly crowd for the Lib Dem leader. One man in Stockport, Ian Forrest, told me:
I used to be a Lib Dem voter, but now I feel let down. Student fees are starting to affect my children now, and the whole thing has put me off all the parties.
Clegg met the man one-on-one, talking to him about a work scheme he is helping set up for local people. Afterwards Forrest told me:
He was great, he really listened.
Although he added he was unlikely to change his vote on the basis of the meeting.
The pattern was repeated among other voters. One couple, Darren and Debbie Quigley, came to confront the deputy PM about the fact their daughter was being refused treatment on the NHS to fit a prosthetic limb that will help her compete in the 2016 paralympic games.
After 10 minutes with Clegg, their hostility melted. Debbie told me:
He was great, very thoughtful.
He will get my vote – if he can do anything about our daughter’s leg.
Of course, it is unlikely Clegg will be able to do much to intervene in this particular case, but the Quigley’s reaction showed that one thing the Lib Dem leader is good at engaging with people and making them feel they are really being listened to.
After he left, the women who met him got together and cooed over the photographs they had taken with him. Hardly what you’d expect from someone who’s party has slumped from 23 per cent two years ago to 11 per cent today, and whose personal ratings have crashed from +53 to -53 in that time.
This one-to-one chemistry a useful skill, but it’s unlikely to change overall voting patterns, at least in this election, with policies such as raising tuition fees still weighing far more heavily than any personal charm he has. Chris Davies, the local Lib Dem MEP, admitted to me:
It’s too late now to change anyone’s mind.
That is especially true in the north, where Clegg has made implacable enemies of many voters. He has admitted in the past that he underestimated the toxic effect Thatcher’s rule had in many parts of the north, and he told me yesterday:
Our main task … is persuading people that we are not Margaret Thatcher, and this is not the 1980s.
So if these kinds of visit are futile, why bother doing them? As Davies says:
Because he has to. If he didn’t our activists would complain about having to pound the streets handing out leaflets while the leader stayed at home.
Davies made another very good point:
A lot of these councillors are going to lose their seats. But if they have the leader come and visit them, or see him out on the streets campaigning, they are more likely to come back and try and fight for those seats again next time.
And Clegg’s interpersonal skills are also likely to serve him in another way: in the 2015 leaders’ debates. The reason Cleggmania happened at all was because the debates played exactly to this strength of the Lib Dem leader to really engage a questioner and sound convincing when giving an answer. Which is one reason not to write off the Lib Dems in 2015 just yet.