Clegg, who is defending a 15, 284 majority, said he was too busy to take part in the hustings at Crookes Social Club, in the part of Sheffield Hallam where most students live.
Instead, Harry Matthews, 22, a university student running for councillor in the Crookes, was sent to represent the Liberal Democrats.
Clegg’s absence ended up a key talking point at the debate attended by the other party parliamentary candidates for Sheffield Hallam and 60 audience members.
Maurice Champeau, the social club manager who organised the debate, said his invitations to Clegg and the Lib Dems were ignored for four weeks: “Nick Clegg was directly emailed on his personal email account three times and Liberal Democrats central office were emailed in excess of five times. It was very frustrating,” he said.
Two weeks ago representatives from the Liberal Democrat central office replied saying they would send Matthews as substitute for the deputy prime minister.
For legal reasons Sunday’s debate was billed as a “question time”: the Labour party has offices at the social club, meaning it could not be called a hustings. But the organiser described it “essentially as a hustings”.
Matthews, a Sheffield University fourth-year physics student, introduced himself saying: “I’m doing my best Nick Clegg impression tonight.”
He went on to defend Clegg’s championing of the High Speed Two rail link and 1,000 miles of road being resurfaced in Sheffield.
Oliver Coppard, Clegg’s Labour rival, claimed Clegg had neglected his promises and his constituents. He said: “The promises around student fees letting down 12,000 students who live in this community has led a lot of people to be disillusioned with politics and MPs in particular. We need an MP who will make this community their priority.”
Coppard continued his offensive on Clegg by attacking his flagship school meals programme: “There were four schools in Sheffield Hallam which applied for 330,000 pounds total to enable them to deliver the free school meals programme, all the schools in Sheffield were turned down.”
If elected as MP, Coppard, wants a right of recall in Sheffield Hallam, so that if 20% of people sign a petition to recall him, he will resign and force a by-election.
At the last election Clegg received strong support from students, following his pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees. Since the trebling of fees under the coalition government, Clegg’s approval ratings have plummeted – a recent Lord Ashcroft poll suggested a 2% point Labour lead over the Liberal Democrats in Sheffield Hallam.
Independent candidate Carlton Reeve claimed the Lib Democrats deliberately left his name off placards around the constituency describing the name Clegg as “toxic around here”.
When a member of the audience asked a question on weak border control, Matthews replied: “I think we should all be very proud that people willing to try and cross the Channel and put their lives at risk to come to this country, I think that’s something we should all be very proud about.”
One audience member, Amy Hazlehurst, 23, said of Clegg: “The fact here’s not here tonight, as he hasn’t turned up to the others, suggests a problem more with the lack of representation of the local constituency. He’s off fighting a big party agenda rather than being here to support the local people.”
Clegg has only appeared in one debate in his constituency on the general election campaign this time around. On Clegg’s absence Matthews said: “I don’t know his exact whereabouts. As leader of a political party I know he has a lot of responsibility to lead a national campaign. He does plenty of Q&As across the constituency. This line all our political opponents like to trot out doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny.”
This article was written by André Rhoden-Paul, for theguardian.com on Monday 13th April 2015 16.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010