Nick Clegg has said the Lib Dem’s evisceration at the general election would have happened even if he had resigned earlier.
He said, however, that it would have made no difference to the outcome of the general election, and that he had not destroyed his party by going into government with the Conservatives in 2010.
Clegg accepted the Lib Dems had hit a “shocking low”, but said it was wrong to see the decision to form a coalition as one taken for political advantage.
“The country was teetering on the edge of an economic precipice in 2010,” he said. “We had a strong, stable, sane government anchored in the centre ground for five years at a time of outright economic peril.”
Giving his first broadcast interview since the election defeat, he said the verdict at the ballot box had been cruel, but that the party had played a heroic role in rescuing the economy from collapse and in promoting liberalism.
The decision to join the coalition was a collective decision, and not taken himself “whimsically whilst scrubbing my teeth one morning”, he said.
Clegg said the revelation of the exit poll on election day prompted him to reach for a cigarette for the first time in a few months, adding it had blindsided him.
He said that people had voted Tory out of fear of a Labour-led government influenced by the Scottish National party. “Ten days before polling day, this seeping fear of a Labour government in England dancing to the tune of the SNP really chilled the English heart, and you could see lot s of people that would traditionally have voted for the Liberal Democrats playing it safe and saying the best guarantee [against] that was to vote Conservative.”
Clegg said he thought many voters intended to administer a slap on the wrists to the Liberal Democrats and not to “throw them to the bottom of the stairs”.
In the interview, Clegg addressed reports that Lord Oakeshott, an ally of the former business secretary Vince Cable, had attempted to orchestrate a coup against his leadership. “It is fair we are not each other’s biggest fans,” he said of Oakeshott, but added that he did not bear grudges.
He said the Tories had won the election fair and square, but that they did not have a clear mandate for radical change. He claimed the electorate did not vote for a punitive approach to child poverty or stringent cuts that affect some of the most vulnerable in society.
Clegg said he was not looking for a formal leadership role in the European referendum campaign but that he would continue to argue that Britain’s membership of the EU was essential to the country’s economic wellbeing and security. He also said he would speak out on civil liberties.
He refused to endorse either of the two candidates to succeed him as leader, saying he would be happy to work with either Tim Farron or Norman Lamb. He said he was delighted to remain MP for Sheffield Hallam, and that he would not decide now whether he would stand again. “I am only 48. I have got bags of energy,” he said.
Asked if he should have resigned before the election, Clegg said: “Obviously I would have done if I felt it would have helped the party. My own view is that changing the leader a year before the election would not have made much difference to withstanding Scottish nationalism north of the border, or people’s fears about Alex Salmond pulling the strings of an Ed Miliband premiership which drove a lot not all of the last minute behaviour of voters.”
He accepted he had experienced the “darkest of the darkest long nights of the soul”, and said the Guardian account portrayed a “lurch from one mournful crisis to the next”.
This article was written by Patrick Wintour Political editor, for theguardian.com on Thursday 25th June 2015 11.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010