The Deputy Prime Minister was in Croydon today (in the Braithwaite Hall at the Town Hall to be specific) answering questions from an audience arranged by Capital Radio.
As the local MP, I got a call on Wednesday night to let me know he was coming and, given that there are no Liberal Democrat MPs or councillors in Croydon and that we are now coalition partners, to ask if I would mind writing him a short briefing note on local issues. He gave me a call at home early this morning to talk through a few issues and was very forgiving of the noise in the background ("Mummy, the Deputy Prime Minister is on the phone!") - it turns out he has three boys almost exactly the same age as mine so he knows what it is like. I would never have guessed back in April that in a few months' time I would be briefing the Leader of the Liberal Democrats!
He took questions on a huge range of issues - animal welfare, tuition fees, Trident, rewards for people working in the civil service, whether it was right that he was Deputy Prime Minister when his party had come third at the election, whether the Budget was regressive, the lack of graduate jobs, corporate taxation, what to do about people who have been living here illegally for a long time, whether schools should be forced to take pupils for a range of backgrounds rather than those who live closest, whether the Government planned to get rid of PCSOs, faith schools, whether the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would continue to work together after the next election (he gave a very good answer to this one, saying that it should be a decision for voters, not for politicians before the election), civil liberties, the census, clamping on private land, class sizes, the West Lothian question, whether homosexuals should be banned from giving blood, whether the Liberal Democrats should have a veto on coalition policy, whether he anticipated the General Election result and finally an issue somebody had with Revenues & Customs - and was very assured throughout. I was particularly impressed with the way he was honest about where the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives had had to compromise in order to form the coalition.
He’s getting a lot of criticism from some quarters at the moment for taking the Liberal Democrats into the coalition, but it seems to me it was clearly the right thing to do both for the country and (though it's really none of my business) politically for the Liberal Democrats. The electorate had made it clear that they wanted rid of Gordon Brown and New Labour but they weren’t quite ready for a majority Conservative Government. The country desperately needed a strong, stable government that could take the tough decisions necessary to get us out of the mess Gordon Brown has left behind. The Liberal Democrats believe in coalition government so it would have been bizarre for them to refuse to join one. And the deal that was struck includes many of their ideas - for example, raising the threshold for income tax to benefit the lowest paid, making the NHS more accountable and providing extra funding for pupils from the most deprived backgrounds. I can understand them being worried about their poll ratings at the moment but if they stick with it and the Government does a good job there is no reason why they shouldn't share the credit.