The first thing you see on entering Captain Clegg's Cabinet Office is a picture on the far wall of one of those ascetic thin-looking medieval chaps and you think… isn't that Machiavelli?
Well, no, the FIRST thing you see is, of course, the ebullient form of Captain Clegg himself, bouncing around, welcoming you in, looking rather trim as though RUNNING the COUNTRY thoroughly agrees with him.
Well, no, the REALLY FIRST thing*, before you even GET to his office, you have to go through some of those glass TUBES off the "Grid" from my SECOND-favourite SPY series, Pooks (aka MI:5 for the Americalandians). And, given that Pooks is some of the most silliest fiction ever, it's moderately ALARMING that it turns out to be real!
(*…I'll come in again)
I'd show you, but they wouldn't let us take photos. They wouldn't EVEN let us take a photo of the "Security Alert Status" brass plaque on the wall (currently set to "highlights" – i.e. above "combover", but bellow "mullet").
Anyway, once we all got in, and after they'd carried out a controlled explosion on Auntie Linda, and once Captain Clegg had welcomed us into his office, there was a nervous declaration that the art on the walls was still that of the previous occupant, Lord Mandelbrot, the former first Fractal of Darkness.
Which would explain Machiavelli.
Captain Clegg hastened to add that he has commissioned some of his OWN choice of art to replace Lord Mandelbrot's tastes.
(He didn't specify whether he would also be replacing Lord Mandelbrot's PIRANHA POOL with optional trick bridge.)
Anyway, speaking of dubious Italianate social realists who favour stability over moral virtue has absolutely nothing to do with our first question which was about the POPE.
Sitting down with the Deputy Supreme Pumpkin of Great Britain – and some rather nice cookies – I said to him, as an "aggressive secularist" with two gay daddies, was there anything he thought he ought to say to Papa Joe?
Captain Clegg said that for a short audience he wasn't going to open Pandora's Box and a few minutes were not really enough time to enter a theological debate.
Which is pretty much all you could expect him to say; I mean it would be charming if he'd said "I considered performing a citizen's arrest and dragging the elderly former member of the Hitler Youth off to a trial before Richard Dawkins and Peter Tatchell but decided it would have been bad form", but it wasn't really LIKELY was it?
More interestingly, he did go on to develop his own personal position, saying that although he's not a man of faith that doesn't mean he wants to play the arch-atheist all the time (oh, go on, it's FUN!). In fact, he said he felt that if must be fantastic to have faith and wonders whether the lack of it is a shortcoming in himself.
To me, "faith" is CERTAINTY without EVIDENCE and for that reason alone is very, very dangerous. I'd rather have one good solid DOUBT than a bucket-load of faith.
We moved on to more serious questioning, and it quickly became obvious where the concerns of the Party lay.
Throughout the Liberal Democrat conference that followed on from our interview, there were these two almost-contradictory narratives running: the one from the Coalition leadership emphasising that the Coalition is strong, and functioning well, operating together and with no major differences; the other from the membership crying out that they WANT to be distinctive and different, they want to be reassured that they are not just winning their share of achievements, but also that we are not being subsumed by the Conservatory Party, devoured by Mr Balloon.
And so we came up with questions looking for distinctiveness, not division, from Daddy Alex wondering why the Conservatories reform proposals seems more favourably treated than ours; from Auntie Linda, asking "how did we get here?" and "where are our values really reflected?"; or from Ms Charlotte Henry wanting to know how the budget would have been different without input from the Liberal Democrats.
The budget is actually the obvious place to go to to look for a checklist of Liberal Democrat "wins", and Captain Clegg had his ready: without Liberal Democrats in government, we wouldn't have got the increase in capital gains tax; we wouldn't have got the increase in personal allowance; we wouldn't have got triple lock on pensions, increasing by the best of earnings, inflation or 2% a year.
Some of those things portrayed as "Conservatory wins", things like simplifying the business tax rates, were things we always campaigned on too.
He also promised that we will see introduction of new green taxes and we'll see further steps towards our promise of no tax to pay on your first ten thousand pounds of income. To people who say that the budget "watered down" that Lib Dem pledge he reminded them that we never said it was to be achieved overnight.
In what was to be really the leadership's major theme for Liverpool, Captain Clegg told us we should "hold our nerve" and not allow the language of the "old politics" to derail all that we've achieved so far, that it was very early days and while the need to tackle the deficit overshadows everything we should look at those achievements, not least the budget, as a downpayment on fairness to come. He also promised us, in a teaser trailer for Mr Huhney-Monster's announcements, big green developments over the Autumn.
Before all that, Daddy Alex had asked about electoral reform and the Coalition agreement: the Conservatories had wanted to equalise the electorates and cut the number of seats in the House of Commons and they got it; the Liberal Democrats had wanted Single Transferable Vote and only got AV and only then after a referendum. Weren't we short-changed?
There were two things the Captain pointed out in reply: one to the Conservatories; one to Hard Labour.
The first on was that the cut in numbers was not as big as Tories wanted, and was only to bring the House into line with EXISTING legislation, the 1986 Act, so actually this is not a Tory thing.
The second thing was that constituencies of equal size come from the Chartists and is not just a founding principle of Labour movement but already a legal requirement – technically all the current bill does is elevate one of several criteria to lead criterion. And there's a 10% leeway so the Commission can work with existing ward boundaries.
Furthermore, he insisted, it's a huge exaggeration to say the re-boundary-ing will benefit Conservatories over Hard Labour, except in Wales where people are hugely overrepresented. But rectifying that overrepresentation, now that there is a Welsh Assembly, is in keeping with the spirit and practice of devolution.
On AV, he admitted to the compromise. Idealism and pragmatism bump up against each other, he said. But no other party was willing to go further than AV. With no cross-party support, further reform was not going to get off the starting block.
Auntie Helen reminded him of the question he'd fielded at Prime Monster's Questionable Time: asked if amending the current bill would be the end of the Coalition, he'd said that the AV deal wasn't the be-all and end-all of the agreement.
Imagine what would have happened if I'd said the opposite, replied Captain Clegg. At the moment they're only trying to amend the bill; if I said it would pull the plug, those Conservatory backbenchers on the wingnut fringe would be CERTAIN to make SURE the bill was amended and that the Coalition fell.
He reiterated that there is a COMMITMENT in the Coalition Agreement to see that the referendum bill is passed.
Is the Coalition working, interjected Daddy Richard.
Much, much better than anyone could have imagined, replied Capitan Clegg. It's much more about what both sides can bring and working out solutions jointly. There's no need for a narrative of winners and losers.
Not like Tony and Gordon, muttered Daddy darkly, and that may have raised a smile.
The press, says Captain Clegg, are still looking at the government through the prism of the old politics and can't cope with the new dynamic. If we can show, through the Coalition that there IS an alternative to the old yah-boo politics, THAT is the PRIZE.
On a more personal note, Daddy Richard wondered about the volleys of abuse – "traitor", "sell out" and the rest – that have been launched at the Liberal Democrats and mostly at him personally. That's got to hurt, Daddy asked.
Brickbats from other politicians don't bother him, he said; it's only when it comes from people in his Sheffield constituency, when people in his surgeries are like that that it gets to him.
But not politicians. Referring to Hard Labour's leadership contest, he remarked that clearly if you want to curry favour with Labour you get nasty about Nick Clegg.
Then Nick Thornberry asked a rather interesting question. Reminding the Captain of his often-used example of the life-chances of a bright child from a poor part of Sheffield being eclipsed by a less able one from a more affluent part of town, one Nick asked the other: will the Nick Clegg of ten years in future be able to say I fixed the social mobility problem?
The other Nick's reply: yes.
Credit where it's due, he admitted that there are some good trends based on Hard Labour decisions of a decade ago.
But for him, obviously, education is key, and the pupil premium and more autonomy in schools should have a big effect.
He also wants to address how the health system works, suggesting a "health premium" like the pupil premium, and radical decentralization, and drawing a link between child mortality and ill housing.
He added that his biggest regret of the first months of the Coalition is that he didn't do enough personally to say that Health White paper is a really good liberal piece of legislation.
And then there are the proposed welfare reforms, not all in this Parliament, that he hopes will do something over time to shift incentives from dependency to work.
Expressing genuine frustration with the games that the press play, he referred to his writing what he believed to be a considered and thoughtful piece for the Times only for it to go misrepresented as an attack on the poor.
What he wants is to use the the welfare and tax reforms to challenge the culture of dependency fostered by the Labour government and all Mr Frown's tax credits.
The approach of previous government was almost a statistical game, drawing a line in the air to say you are "poor" if you are below it and then spending millions on nudging a few people from just under the line to just over the line and calling this success.
For Captain Clegg a truly fairer society has to go hand in hand with radical devolution, really setting people FREE.
Finally, there was the question that the Captain asked of himself, inspired perhaps by our probing for differences with the Conservatories, perhaps by his own narrative of unity:
What do the Liberal Democrats get out of the Coalition?
And then our hour was up and it was time to go: us to race off to Liverpool for conference; him to a meeting with the Home Secretary! So we gathered up our stuff and left him there under the watchful eye of (possibly) that notorious Florentine political advisor.
Machiavelli once wrote that REFORM is the most dangerous endeavour a Prince can embark upon. Those who benefited from the old regime will resist with all their might; those who might benefit from the changes will be only half-hearted for they have no benefit yet, and worse you will inevitably disappoint some of your supporters.
Yet he ALSO wrote that a Prince who gains power by fortune or inheritance or in the gift of powerful figures rises easily to power but has a hard time maintaining it, while a Prince who comes to power by SMASHING the existing order rises with difficulty but rules with ease once he has power.
I wonder what he, sitting there on the wall, would make of Captain Clegg.