Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty; Chris Williamson/Getty; Shayanne Gal/Insider
- Nick Clegg has risen quickly to become one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest confidants at Meta.
- Clegg, a former UK deputy prime minister, led the decision to reinstate Donald Trump to Facebook.
- People close to Clegg charted his rise from UK politics to Zuckerberg’s inner circle.
This article was originally published on November 19, 2021. It was updated on February 16, 2022 following the news that Nick Clegg had been promoted to the role of President for Global Affairs. It was updated again on January 26, 2023 to include details about Donald Trump’s reinstatement to Facebook and Instagram.
When Mark Zuckerberg threw President Trump off Facebook after the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021, it marked probably the most high-profile moderation decision in the company’s history. After all, deplatforming a sitting head of state is no small matter.
A Facebook insider familiar with the internal discussions at the time said that a former senior UK lawmaker took center stage as Zuckerberg and his inner circle deliberated over how to respond to Trump’s incitements. That lawmaker was Nick Clegg, a former UK deputy prime minister, who left behind a tumultuous career in politics in 2018 to join Facebook, now known as Meta, as its communications chief.
Clegg took the spotlight again in October 2021 as Facebook announced its corporate rebrand to Meta and outlined its vision for the “metaverse.” Somewhat unusually for a glitzy tech product launch, Clegg joined Zuckerberg at the virtual presentation to discuss how regulation hasn’t kept pace with the speed of tech innovation.
It wasn’t long before he ascended further up the chain: In February 2022, Zuckerberg announced Clegg had been promoted to a new position of President for Global Affairs. Reporting directly to both Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, Clegg was tasked with leading the company on all policy matters. (Clegg previously just reported to Sandberg.)
With his boss looking to the metaverse, Clegg’s job was to keep the show on the road. This involved battling damaging allegations about Facebook’s motives amid fears about online harms, as well as dealing with claims about its platform’s influence on elections and even genocide. The company faced increasingly vociferous calls from both sides of the Atlantic for it to be more tightly regulated or even broken up.
While some social-media commenters regarded Clegg’s performance in Meta’s unveiling video as cringeworthy, a former UK politician who knows Clegg well took a different view.
“You can see what Nick is up to here: He is asking to be regulated,” the former politician said. “He sees that as the only alternative to a complete breakup.”
Insider interviewed eight of Clegg’s friends and former colleagues. Together they charted how his rise as a charismatic, made-for-TV-debates politician and his rapid fall from grace in UK politics helped set him up to become one of Meta’s key decision-makers — and rapidly become one of Zuckerberg’s closest confidants.
Clegg’s smooth rise and heavy fall in UK politics
Sir Nicholas William Peter Clegg, 56, enjoyed a privileged upbringing. The son of a bank chairman, he was educated at Westminster School, an elite English private school that today charges up to £46,341 ($57,500) per pupil per year. He read archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge before studying at the University of Minnesota and the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. Along the way, he learned to speak five languages.
Following a spell in the early ’90s as an award-winning journalist at the Financial Times, Clegg worked as a policy advisor and speechwriter to Leon Brittan, a European Union commissioner who had served in top UK government roles under Margaret Thatcher. Clegg was elected as a member of the European Parliament in 1999 and to the UK House of Commons in 2005.
From left: The Conservative Party’s David Cameron, the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown taking part in a televised leaders’ debate in 2010.
Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images
In 2007, after a smooth rise through the ranks, Clegg became the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the UK’s third-largest political party at the time. But he didn’t win the public’s attention until he performed superbly in the televised debates of the 2010 general-election campaign. The fresh-faced newcomer charmed TV audiences with his straightforward, answer-the-question approach, a change from the usual circumlocutions of slippery politicos.
A phenomenon that the press labeled “Cleggmania” swept the UK. The Lib Dems went on to win enough seats at the election to form a coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservative Party, and Clegg became Cameron’s deputy prime minister.
In three years, Clegg had become the most successful Liberal leader in Britain for a century, and the first since 1922 to serve in government.
Yet over the next two years, he would become, arguably, the biggest failure ever to hold that post.
In their election manifesto, the Lib Dems had promised to fight government-sanctioned hikes to university tuition fees, a policy that attracted the attention and votes of cash-strapped students.
But coalition means compromise. In a challenging economic climate, the Lib Dems and their Conservative coalition partners voted to raise tuition fees. It was a disastrous move for the Lib Dems that destroyed trust in the party and its leadership. They haven’t recovered since.
Britain’s Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron (right) and the Liberal Democrat Party Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg speaking at a press conference inside 10 Downing Street to mark the halfway point in the five-year term of the coalition government on January 7, 2013.
Alastair Grant/AFP via Getty Images
In the 2010 election, the Lib Dems won 57 seats in Parliament. In the 2015 election, after the tuition-fees debacle, they won eight. There would be no coalition government for the Lib Dems in 2015. The Conservatives won an outright majority, and Cameron no longer needed Clegg.
Clegg resigned from the party’s leadership in 2015, but he kept his Commons seat — only to lose it two years later in a snap election.
The demise of the Lib Dems hit Clegg badly, former Lib Dem colleagues said.
“Nick was not used to failure,” one colleague said.
Another said: “Nick went through an awful lot with the coalition. He had to take the chance when it came, but being part of a coalition means swallowing a lot. It requires guts.”
Sean Kemp, the former head of political communications for the Lib Dems, conceded that the party probably didn’t prepare adequately for a coalition. Had the Lib Dems known tuition fees would become a central issue, the party could have left it out of the manifesto, or at least toned down its approach, Kemp said.
“We allowed it to become the monster that haunted us,” he added.
Clegg’s European savvy appealed to Meta executives
After a short stint in the political wilderness, Clegg resurfaced at Facebook in 2018 to serve as its vice president for global affairs and communications. He moved to Atherton, California, with his wife, Miriam González Durántez, a lawyer, and their three sons: Alberto, Antonio, and Miguel.
A close UK confidant of Clegg’s said: “I completely understand why the idea of getting out of the UK was attractive. It was a fresh start in a high-profile, global role.”
Before Clegg joined Facebook, the Lib Dems already had a foothold in the company: Richard Allan, a Lib Dem Party veteran, was the vice president of public policy for Europe, Middle East, and Africa. And Lena Pietsch, Clegg’s former advisor, was also at the company, working in policy communications.
Amid rising tensions with European lawmakers, Clegg brought direct experience of European politics.
A former Lib Dem minister said: “The reason Nick must be so valuable to Facebook is that he has impeccable connections with the European elite. He speaks all their languages. He has worked there. He can pick up the phone to anyone in the Commission.”
From left: Nick Clegg, Mark Zuckerberg, and Richard Allan prior to a meeting with the French president at the Élysée Palace in Paris on May 10, 2019.
Yoan Valat/AFP via Getty Images
One of Clegg’s closest confidants in the UK, an ex-minister who served in the coalition government, said they weren’t surprised that he took the job at Facebook.
“Nick can be audacious in taking on challenges,” they said, mentioning the confidence gleaned from an elite education. “Things do not faze him in the way they might faze others. When we were dealing with a crisis in the party leadership, Nick was always the calmest in the room.”
The Facebook that Clegg joined in 2018 was mired in controversy over its influence on young people and democracy, the Cambridge Analtica scandal, as well as over its aggressive acquisition strategy, through which it had swallowed up the nascent WhatsApp and Instagram.
A former senior Lib Dem politician said: “Look, if Nick was still leader of a Liberal Democrat Party that has always been opposed to monopolies and a bastion of civil liberties, what would he be doing? He would be calling for the breakup of Facebook.”
Clegg often compares the euphoria that greeted the arrival of Facebook and other social-media companies to the pessimism of today about their role in society. The pendulum has swung from utopianism to the other extreme, where social-media companies are blamed for everything. But these extremes don’t present the right view, Clegg tells his staff: The pendulum should rest somewhere in the middle.
Clegg declined to be interviewed for this article in 2021. Riki Parikh, his spokesperson at Meta, said Clegg believes a combination of internal action by Facebook and external regulation by governments is the way forward. He believes, Parikh said, that stopping election interference or improving privacy safeguards won’t be achieved by breaking up Facebook or any other company. His line is that Facebook shouldn’t be dismantled because it’s successful, but it should be held to account — and that means getting the rules of the internet right.
A former colleague said Clegg was well aware of Facebook’s problems when Sandberg approached him for the job. They added that Clegg wouldn’t have said yes if Zuckerberg hadn’t accepted his bottom line: That Zuckerberg and his company had to get on the front foot and engage with a divided world.
“When I arrived here, Facebook was just constantly taking just endless incoming fire. If I felt we could just go quiet, boy, would I advocate for it,” Clegg told Politico in 2020. “But I actually don’t think that’s possible. I don’t believe in sitting here behind these lovely walls in Menlo Park and kind of just hunkering down.”
‘Mark listens to him’
Parikh said that one of Clegg’s big achievements at Meta had been getting Zuckerberg on board to talk publicly about having a globally consistent tax policy. Parikh added, “Nick is always drumming the message that 90% of our users are outside the US, and that we must pay attention to what is going on outside.”
Parikh said that Zuckerberg’s inner circle at the company consists mainly of executives who have worked with him for more than a decade. After three years at the company, Clegg is already part of that circle.
“Mark listens to him,” Parikh said of Clegg. “Nick is a guy who has served at the top of a government and has massive pan-European reach. That perspective is valuable to Mark.”
A former minister, recalling how Clegg handled difficult colleagues, felt that he would be able to handle a founder such as Zuckerberg because, as a political leader, Clegg was used to dealing with strong personalities.
Nick Clegg (left) and Chris Huhne appearing on the BBC’s “The Andrew Marr Show” in October 2007.
Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images
Take Chris Huhne, a former political rival of Clegg’s whom he’d narrowly beaten for the leadership of the Lib Dems in 2007. The former minister described Huhne as a “carnivore among herbivores” who took no prisoners. But, the former minister said, Clegg handled him in an “empathetic, sensitive, way” that got the party through difficult times.
These reasons may be why Clegg and Zuckerberg are said to be as close as they are — and why Clegg was central to events on January 6, 2021, when Facebook deplatformed Trump.
A Meta insider familiar with the internal discussions said Zuckerberg consulted with top executives — including Clegg, Sandberg, and Joel Kaplan, the global policy chief — as events unfolded on Capitol Hill that day. After Trump posted a video on his social-media accounts urging rioters to go home but also praising them as “very special” people, they decided to suspend Trump’s account for 24 hours. The decision came an hour after Twitter had implemented a 12-hour block on Trump’s account.
Later that evening, the Facebook executives discussed the possibility of an indefinite suspension, the insider said, and Zuckerberg asked Clegg to put together a thesis for an unprecedented decision to bar a head of state from the platform. Clegg worked overnight on the rationale, and then the executives reconvened early the next morning, reviewed Clegg’s draft, and decided to suspend Trump “indefinitely,” the insider said.
Clegg then worked with Zuckerberg on the draft for the CEO’s Facebook post explaining the decision, the insider said. In the days that followed, Clegg suggested referring the decision to Facebook’s quasi-independent Oversight Board, feeling that was why the panel of independent experts had been created, the insider said. (Clegg was also one of the figureheads behind the establishment of the board, which reviews the company’s moderation decisions.)
During the week of January 11, Clegg and his team prepared a series of options and a recommendation for Zuckerberg, which was presented on January 15, the insider said. Zuckerberg agreed with the referral to the Oversight Board. But on the matter of what questions should be put to the board, he said Clegg should decide.
The insider added that Zuckerberg said: “That’s up to you, Nick. I defer to you on that.”
Meta’s problems grow
Meta’s public-relations crises snowballed after the violence at the Capitol. As Clegg toured US TV studios and global tech conferences in 2021 to respond to issues raised by the whistleblower Frances Haugen and lawmakers across the world, some of Meta’s critics saw Clegg as the fall guy for Zuckerberg and other executives who should be held accountable.
After years of mea culpas, Meta’s communications team started going on the offensive, with a “less conciliatory” approach when responding to crises, The New York Times reported in September 2021.
Nick Clegg speaking at Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal in November 20221.
Public trust of Facebook waned further that year. Leaked documents detailed how some of Meta’s own employees felt burned out and frustrated, worrying that the company was in a “failure state.” Haugen wasn’t the only former employee to speak out publicly against the company. Meanwhile, commentators and lawmakers repeatedly compared Facebook to Big Tobacco.
Meta’s fault lines were deep, leaving Clegg with unsteady ground on which to operate, Greg Nugent, a British communications expert who led marketing for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, said in 2021.
“It is about purpose. Why does it exist? What role does it want to play?” Nugent said of Meta. “If its only purpose is to make shareholders profit, then Facebook will find, just as the tobacco companies eventually did, that it will end badly.”
The return of Trump
On Wednesday, Meta announced it would reinstate Donald Trump to Facebook and Instagram and put “guardrails” in place to “deter repeat offenses.”
It didn’t go unnoticed that Clegg, rather than Zuckerberg, made the announcement. Indeed, as Clegg told Axios: “I am the ultimate decision-maker on these kinds of issues in the company.”
It was surely a sign of how much power Clegg now wields at Meta.
Philip Webster, a former political editor of The Times of London, has covered Westminster politics for more than 40 years.