Nick Clegg: I'm the daddy

November 25, 2012 8:44 AM
By Charlotte Edwardes in London Evening Staandard

Miriam And NickHe took merciless flak over tuition fees and his poll ratings have bombed, but devoted father Nick Clegg's reform of paternity leave has finally given him something to smile about

"I'm chuffed to bits to finally get this through," Nick Clegg says of his radical reform of paternity leave. "It's something I've been campaigning for all my political life." The Deputy Prime Minister, 45, is sitting on a large cream sofa in the Cabinet Office, looking triumphant. He is holding a cup of tea and wearing a tie the colour of buttercups.

Nick Clegg is a Nice Guy. He's the politician who apologies for mistakes, cries listening to music, and is unwarily candid about past dalliances. He hasn't gone through that rapid ageing process of most men in public office - he's baby-faced and considerate in a way grandparents would approve of. ("Coasters for the tea please!" he calls. "Otherwise it marks the table.")

In the past, Clegg has been straight- talking and honest - qualities that journalists love and spin doctors hate. Today he is shadowed by two aides with a faintly menacing air about them.

His startling lack of machismo is mirrored in his policies: he wants more time for dads at home, more time for women to chase high-flying careers. From 2015, parents can share up to one year of "parental leave" after the birth of a child. They can take time off together, take it in turns, or the father can take it all.

Clegg's commitment to equality in the workplace is strident: "We really are squandering the talents of so many women in our country," he says, "particularly in comparison with other countries, where there are a higher proportion of women working in high-paid, high-quality jobs."

In part he blames this on the current system of maternity leave (women get a year, men two weeks), which he describes as "antiquated and out-of-step" with modern parenting. "We had rules that only worked in a world that no longer exists. I dragged these rules into the 21st century," he says. "There are still people who think we should pigeonhole men and women."

Clegg says he would have taken paternity leave even further and given fathers a block of "take it or lose it" time off but for the "fragile state" of the economy. "Business," he explains, "is understandably anxious about too many changes at once."

The economy is also the reason Clegg hasn't been able to do more about affordable childcare. "If we can find some extra money," he says, "and there aren't billions of pounds lying around, I'll put delivering affordable, good-quality childcare high up on the list."

He has, he points out, addressed this in another, cheaper, way. Employees can now officially ask for flexitime so that working grandparents, for example, can shift their hours around "to help out with grandchildren".

It comes as little surprise to hear that Clegg's policy-making on family dynamics is heavily influenced by personal experience.

His Spanish wife Miriam, 44, is a focused feminist lawyer whose commitment to her own work stopped her from taking time off to help him with his election campaign. They are the hard-working parents of three boys (Antonio, 10, Alberto, seven, and Miguel, three). He earns £134,565, so Miriam is technically the breadwinner, reportedly pulling in around £500,000 as a partner at Dechert LLP.

When Antonio was born in 2002 it was a critical time in Miriam's career. "It hit me like any man of my generation," says Clegg. "I thought: 'What? Miriam is expected to do it all? I'm only allowed two weeks off?' And it seemed unbelievably old-fashioned. She went back to work after a few weeks and I was able to juggle things much more flexibily than she could. We were able to mix and match. But no thanks to the law."

Would it have affected her work if she couldn't have gone back? "It would have had a big effect," he says. "We were lucky."

It was different with the births of Alberto and Miguel. "Sometimes it depends how you physically feel," he says. "Miriam had a much more difficult birth with Alberto.

"When Miguel was born I was party leader. I didn't have much time off, but Miriam was at a stage where she could take a more conventional block of maternity leave."

Miriam (who uses her maiden name, Gonzalez Durantez, for work) seems to have shrugged off her early image of a ball-breaking, briefcase-carrying alpha female. She has emerged in softer focus, with a more colourful wardrobe and has been photographed with Nigella Lawson frying up croquetas.

But her opinion on the childcare responsibilities of fathers is much more steely: "If they don't want to be involved, they shouldn't have them, no?" she recently said.

"She's amazing," Clegg acknowledges. "I don't know how she does it. We're both very involved at home but I'm rubbish in the kitchen. I'm involved with the children: with breakfast, homework or ferrying them around to football games on a cold Sunday morning. We're like any couple, we divvy things up."

Actually they are not really like "any other couple". A day in the life of the Cleggs is not for the faint-hearted. This morning he got up at 5.30am and after two hours "catching up on paperwork", he made the children breakfast and, "walked them to school in the rain". He and Miriam are strict about ensuring one of them takes them to school and one of them is always there to put them to bed.

"We are pretty disciplined about that. When it's my turn I will race off to south-west London, read them a story and put them to bed. Then I come back to Westminster. I work until late. Sometimes Miriam has to travel and I do more, sometimes I have to travel and she does more." He quickly adds: "I don't say that with any smidgen of regret, I am incredibly happy as a dad to three lovely boys."

Do they have help? "My mother helps one day a week and we have a nanny." And Miriam's mother is coming over "in the new year for a while".

He tries to keep the family "grounded" he says, and to that end they have stayed in their house in Putney. It's expensively furnished, with paintings of ancestors hanging from the walls, and a Shaker-style kitchen. "There was some talk after the election of flats in the Whitehall jungle," he says, "but we decided to stay to allow the children to feel continuity. And - apart from the fact that there's now a policeman standing outside our door - everything has remained the same." The two eldest attend a state primary and the youngest is at nursery.

"In one sense I'd love the world to see my children because I tend to think like any dad that they're the most wonderful kids in the world," he says, "but we keep them completely out of public gaze." One wonders if he's having a dig at David Cameron.

Does he go out with them a lot? "I took my two oldest boys to see the north London derby last Saturday and they haven't stopped talking about it! They have Arsenal shirts with their names on. I've been dragged into being a supporter now." He looks over at one of his aides and laughs: "He's a Tottenham supporter - look at that, look at those daggers!" I glance over but he's looking at me exactly as he has since I arrived.

Big Ben tolls outside and the aide calls time. "We've got a bit more - no?" says Clegg. No.

He rounds the interview up, modestly positive, in a way that shows this is not the end of his childcare crusade. "While I think we've made a massive stride forward, I wouldn't ever be complacent. We've still got quite a way to travel."


Morning shift

5.30am Shower, breakfast and work through ministerial box of papers

7.30am Get the boys up and ready for school - Antonio, 10, Alberto, seven and Miguel three. Make them breakfast

8.45am Walk them to school/nursery

Or evening shift

7pm Dash home for homework, bathtime and stories

8pm Return to Parliament for a few more hours