Sunday, 18 November 2007

Calamity Clegg?

To my intense irritation, I managed to miss the first ten minutes of the Politics Show, which meant that I missed the first half of the Liberal Democrat leadership special, where John Sopel spoke to both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne in a head-to-head. Others will have to tell me whether I missed the best bit, but the half I saw was interesting enough.

I came in just before Sopel produced a document entitled Calamity Clegg, that he claimed was an attack sheet produced by Huhne’s office in which it accused Clegg of flip-flopping, saying different things to different audiences and of failing on key policies. Chris of course denied any knowledge of it, but then proceeded to argue that much of what it said was true. What is noteworthy is that he did not say “I’ve no idea what that is, John, but it is not something I commissioned, I have nothing to do with it, and as such I have no intention of discussing a document I have not seen and for which I bear no responsibility.” Perhaps that is because he couldn’t. There ensued the bitterest argument between the two that I have yet heard.

Chris accused Nick of being vague on Trident and of refusing to rule out European social insurance and school voucher models. Nick rebuffed these accusations extremely strongly, arguing that Chris’ own stance on Trident was unclear (he suggested Chris supported building an new missile system) and said that he had been entirely clear on the question of social insurance and vouchers, neither of which he proposed. Notably, Nick mentioned at least twice that he had explicitly ruled these out the previous day (Saturday 17 November) in a private conversation with Chris, but that Chris was deliberately ignoring this; Nick also said that he was clear about this on his website and in other sources.

I think this is a shame. Partly, this is because I believe that social insurance and particularly school vouchers are worth examining, so it is frustrating to hear policies that I believe would improve services and empower individuals being dismissed by both potential leaders. Others however might be relived, so what individuals think about the specific policies is not so important. What is a tragedy is that Chris, by using the suggestion of liberal alternatives to state provision as a weapon with which to beat his opponent, has made it now impossible for either leader to ever consider them. Whether or not the policies would benefit people, it behoves our leaders to be open-minded and willing to examine new evidence as it comes in. By closing down even consideration of alternatives because it serves their personal ambition and vanity does not do any favours to the leadership, the party or the people we are hoping to serve.

Nick’s counter-attack was equally ruthless, it must be said. He accused Chris of deliberately inventing non-existent differences between them so as to create avenues for attack: in effect, lying about Nick’s beliefs or campaign. This follows Chris’ efforts on Thursday to damn Nick by association, suggesting that because one of Nick’s main supporters was David Laws, Nick could not be trusted. Interestingly, the document had been produced just after Sopel had asked Chris whether Nick would be a good leader, to which Chris replied “Yes, but not this time.” As a result of this argument, Nick escaped ever having to answer that question.

Overall, Nick was far calmer and in control of the situation today, while Chris looked more on the back foot than he had on Thursday’s Question Time. However, this was at least in part because it was he whom Sopel had accused of underhand tactics. Chris came out of it looking shifty, underhanded and bitter – perhaps because most of the senior party figures and the press favour his opponent. Nick by comparison looked like he was frustrated by the cheap tactics that the Huhne camp was employing and would rather get on with the important matter of… well… leading the party.

Overall, Chris appeared focussed on undermining Nick; and in the process did harm to our reputation as a party. It is interesting that on Thursday David Dimbleby asked Nick Clegg how he would respond to the reputation of the nasty party. Had I been in Nick’s shoes I would have replied “Not being a Conservative I cannot comment on their reputation”, but if Nick’s answer was less quick and less witty it might be because he was painfully aware that after losing (ejecting?) two leaders in two years, and with David Cameron doing so much to appear cuddly that I expect him any day to dress up in a bear costume, that reputation is passing our way. Today, Chris appeared to be pouring fuel on that fire.

If there is truth in Sopel’s accusation, and that document is real, or is indicative of the campaign the Huhne camp is leading, then the calamity Clegg presents is one for Chris Huhne alone, whereas the tactics Chris is employing to win the election render him a liability.

9 comments:

Dave Manuel said...

Whether Hulne knew or didn't about the document smearing Clegg - his behaviour on the Politics Show was an eyeopener. He continued to bully Clegg in labeling him a 'flip-flopper' whilst talking all over Clegg. This is poor schoolbully tactics and damages the Lib-dems.

Robin Young said...

Excuse me young Tom, but you cannot have been properly settled in your chair. Chris did indeed say almost verbatim what you allege he did not say. He said he had no knowledge of the Calamity Clegg leaflet, had not sanctioned it, and he refused to discuss it when it was handed to him because, as he said, it was the first time he had set eyes on it. But he did then set about young milksop Clegg with a will, showing that for once we do have a Liberal Democrat who can do political aggression - talking over not only opponents but television interviewer as well. Makes a change!

Anonymous said...

"saying different things to different audiences"

Isn't that the Lib Dem way?

Chris Squire said...

It is on the BBC website at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/politics_show/default.stm I agree with Robin Young: I am pleased to see a would eb leader being an attack dog - that's part of he job!

Tom Papworth said...

Robin,

I can only assume that you are flattering me when you describe me as "Young Tom", because the alternative interpretation would be that you are being patronising.

Chris did say he didn't know anything about it, but he did not deny that it had come from his office, and he then proceeded to demonstrate quite a detailed knowledge of what was in it, as he began his attack on Nick as though he was reading from a script - specifically, that script.

Chris,

I'd rather my future leader spent the campaign setting out his vision rather than maligning his opponents.

Anonymous,

At least we are prepared to stand by what we say, rather than hiding behind anonymity.

Anonymous said...

Tom Papworth,

RE: "saying different things to different audiences"... the lIb Dem way.


If it REALLY matters - my name is Dave Ward. I live in SW1. That make you feel better?

Tristan said...

The conservatism in the LibDems saddens me.
Why are we not willing to look at radical solutions which might empower individuals and improve service? I think its this 'right wing' problem. The Tories stole a few clothes and now we won't touch them.

Its sad that radicalism seems to consist of localism (which is great in as far as it goes) and pushing for many of the same tired policies which didn't work in the past and won't work now. Oh, and government meddling in people's lives.

Anonymous said...

Oh come on Huhn is only employing the kind of underhand tactics Liberals have always employed, illegal homophobic attacks on Tatchell, providing candiates for the Referendum Party and latterly the UKIP where it looks like they might come up short.

Tom Papworth said...

Dave,

Of course it matters. Standing up for what you believe doesn't mean hiding behind anonymity.

Now, as for political parties being inconsistent, you might want to look to your own glass house before raising the stone: Michael Gove came out today saying that the Conservatives would allow Tory-run authorities to build new Grammar Schools, which is the opposite of what David Cameron was saying only a few weeks ago!