With less than 100 days to go until the General Election, the battle lines are being clearly drawn in Sheffield Hallam.
This week 20-year-old UKIP representative Joe Jenkins was confirmed as the fourth candidate to stand in the constituency against Lib Dem MP Nick Clegg.
Chief among Jenkins’ reasons for standing was the Deputy Prime Minister reneging on his electoral pledge to abolish tuition fees in 2010 - a national issue which threatens to seriously dent his majority in Sheffield.
Meanwhile Labour’s Oliver Coppard is said to be part of a ‘decapitation’ strategy aimed at unseating Mr Clegg in May.
But the MP himself believes that, rather than rallying voters against him in Hallam, the other parties’ approach could backfire to his advantage.
“Think back to 2010 - Labour predicted a post-Soviet meltdown and we have just had statistics out which now show that since the Coalition came to power, unemployment in Sheffield Hallam has halved. It is now among the lowest anywhere in the country,” he said.
“Do I think everything is perfect? Of course not. But am I proud of what I’ve sought to do for Sheffield Hallam over the last 10 years including over the last several years in Government? Yes I am.”
Mr Clegg said Oliver Coppard should ‘rein himself in’ with demands for a head-to-head debate.
“I just get the impression he’s getting a bit over-excited because unlike him I’ve actually fought two general elections here and of course there will be hustings and I’m sure we’ll end up sharing a platform with the other candidates as well. It will happen.”
He added: “I’ve certainly come across a lot of voters on the doorstep who don’t like that kind of personalised, scaremongering campaign.
“I accept because I’m the leader of my party I’m a prominent target for my opponents - that doesn’t surprise me and I take all of that on the chin. But I also happen to know the constituency I have served for the past 10 years and love.
“It’s one of the greatest privileges of my professional life to represent this area.”
Mr Clegg said he was ‘very anxious’ to see a ‘comprehensive approach’ to meeting soaring demand for school places in the south-west of Sheffield.
“For 10 years now I’ve seen stopgap measures. The council appear to have decided that Dobcroft infants in Millhouses has to take 30 children this September but have done it without any consultation with the local parents.
“And at the same time you’ve got other schools in the area, Ecclesall, Clifford and others who would like to be part of the solution of providing more places.”
He said any new plan would need to be ‘properly funded’.
“Building new classrooms is not something you want to do on the cheap, and I don’t want to see hand-me-down Portakabins crop up in schools.
“I’m very anxious that we should get it right because one of the reasons why people want to come and live in this part of the city is because the schools are so great.”
Referring to Sheffield Council’s recent budget proposals - which factored in a 1.99 increase in council tax amid efforts to tackle £63m in budget cuts - Mr Clegg said it was ‘time for a bit of grown-up candour’ about the state of the city’s finances.
“The Labour party cannot complain on the one hand about having to make savings, and on the other hand nationally declare that they would ask for more cuts from local government. You can’t have your cake and eat it.”
He said in choosing to increase tax, Sheffield Council had turned down a £1.97m ‘council tax freeze’ grant from the Government.
“It is inexplicable and inexcusable that the Labour council in Sheffield has now turned its nose up against significant amounts of money from Whitehall to maintain a council tax freeze.”
But he would not be drawn on the prospect of handing further powers to Sheffield under the devolution package announced in December, which was criticised by some for comparing unfavourably with other cities’ deals.
“Along with Manchester, there’s no other part of the country which has had such extensive devolution over housing, skills, business support and transport investment. I want to see the local council grab it with both hands and make it a reality.”