Indeed as we entered we were asked to fill in empty seats near the front - no doubt to make it look good for Clegg on television. Needless to say WfW and I ignored such requests and sat where we liked.
The 'comforting' title of "Meet Nick in Oxford" Lib Dem website had noted before the event:
What it didn't state was what time it would start, and nor could anyone at the event give any confirmation. But as it turned out it was 13:00 and even then Clegg was late (an old trick). Then the "hour-long event" suddenly was announced as a 45 minute one. In addition the requested photo ID wasn't asked for on entry (though we suspect that was requested in anticipation of disruption, which indeed happened at the end which we will return to later in the post).If you are successful [in the ballot for tickets] you will need to arrive at 12.30pm as seats will be limited. The hour-long event is free and you will have to bring photo ID to gain access to the event.
So all in all not a good start. But then we were under no illusions that this would be a proper "robust Q&A" session. We also expected Clegg to insult those who wish to leave the failed anti-democractic project that is the EU, which he duly did on many occasions. However we anticipated that at least there would an opportunity to take Clegg to task during the Q&A session if selected, via a show of hands, to ask a question.
What became quickly apparent was that this was most certainly not going to be a "Meet Nick in Oxford". Despite the Oxford Mail hosting the event and introducing Clegg, the decision to select which members of the audience would ask questions was left to Clegg himself. A situation very different to hustings meeting attended where a Chairman adopts that role to ensure fairness in question selection. Why did the Oxford Mail not adopt this role as it was the host?
It subsequently became rather revealing who was being selected. Despite WfW putting his hand up every time - and myself on a couple of occasions - neither of us were nominated. WfW in particular was quite obviously being ignored. Clegg noticeably avoiding eye contact at every opportunity perhaps sensing that WfW by clearly being a gentleman of much more experience might give Clegg a somewhat difficult time (and he was right).
Instead virtually every audience member chosen to ask was under 30 and mainly they were in their early 20s. They are likely to ask the easiest questions - as an example one question was whether an England World Cup win was more likely than a Liberal Democrat electoral success. This from a hall that had a fair number of Oxford University students in the audience. Is this really the level of our political debate?
Only three men in total were selected, the rest were women. And only one person was selected who was over the age of 30; a lady who turned out to be a local Lib Dem Councillor - to feigned surprise by Clegg. What a coincidence!
After every question Clegg then proceed to waffle on extensively, adopting the technique of filibustering to drag out the 45 minutes - it was like a glorified extended version of "Just A Minute".
Despite the billing that this debate was about Clegg's views on UK in the EU and the opening remarks by himself concentrating on the EU and the forthcoming Euro elections there were no specific questions on the subject. The closest we had was the last question about gay rights which was linked rather tenuously with our membership of the EU.
Largely we felt the whole experience was a waste of time, but as a consolation it did give an acute lesson in the art of stage management and audience manipulation. We were reminded of stage artists such as Sally Morgan who claim they have psychic powers. They don't of course, instead it's a combination of cold reading, educated guesses based on statistics and the use of information provided before the show. With this in mind it's worth noting that the application form to enter the ballot was headed with:
Your question to NickThus giving Clegg advanced warning of questions to come. Doris Stokes would be proud.
On a final point, Clegg made great play about the Liberals historically being a party of democracy, liberty and freedom, but after the session ended a gentleman was rather roughly and physically bundled out of the building after he attempted to present Clegg with what was clearly Lib Dem literature (we're guessing as a protest against broken Lib Dem promises). This we suspect is why the photo ID request was made. And there goes the party of liberty...
In conclusion it was a stark reminder of what we already knew - those in favour of EU membership simply cannot be honest about it and lack the backbone to justify their position.
This piece has been cross-posted with WfW.