From today’s Observer:
The Liberal Democrat leader is investigating an allegation that members of the media have been briefed with erroneous information damaging Cable’s position in the party.
The move followed an angry complaint from an MP during a meeting of the parliamentary party at last week’s Lib Dem conference in Glasgow. The dispute centres on an economic debate held during an away day for Lib Dem MPs last month.
A number of reports, including one by the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson, alleged that Cable lost heavily when he proposed at the event that the government should borrow more, at current very low interest rates, to fund more capital spending. One source, reportedly close to Clegg, told the Sun: “The good doctor has been well and truly put back in his box.”
The report goes on to elaborate that Vince lost that vote by 55-2 when others say that there were only 40 or so MPs there and the feeling in the room was much more 60-40.
We’ve seen reports of some pretty robust briefings from the leader’s office over the last few months. There’s been stuff about certain elements in the party needing to grow up, which Nick has said publicly. As I wrote at the time, that’s always such an effective way to bring Liberal Democrats on side. There was definitely some pretty macho ramping up of the economy debate in Glasgow, but, thankfully, Nick himself got the tone right in his speech after a high quality debate.
Politicians have briefed journalists about the internal disputes in their parties since the dawn of time and ours is no different. We tend not to do it with poison, though, and I really think that those around the leader have much more important things to do than spin negative stories about colleagues. Let’s hope that lessons are learned. After all, we need only look at the glum faces in Brighton to see the effects of decades of feuding and power struggles. Damian McBride’s revelations have opened up wounds that were only barely healing and it’s not a pretty sight.
Our lot’s alleged briefings have been extremely tame in comparison to Labour’s but still make me uncomfortable. When we gathered in Glasgow to debate a particularly meaty agenda, there was a sense of a family gathering. You might be voting a different way from somebody, but you could quite happily go for a coffee with them later. Liberal Democrats are very difficult to label. While Charlotte Henry and I might disagree on just about everything to do with the economy, we worked very well together against secret courts. Generally, though, we get on pretty well together, debating issues without rancour and then getting on with life. I do not want to see us end up like Labour.
I’d suggest that sources close to the leader should learn from this Conference. It was a success because Nick was relaxed, consensual and told people what we were about, explaining our values with passion and emotion. For me, one of the best phrases in his speech was when he talked about the dilemma he faced over web snooping. He vetoed Theresa May’s plans because, he said, they were “right for the establishment but wrong for the people.” That’s exactly what a liberal should be saying. That clear direction and a feeling that we know where we’re going and how to get there meant people went away energised and motivated.
Our senior sources need to spend their time making sure that we respond quickly enough to major stories like the Go home poster vans or David Miranda’s detention. Two days in each case to get a Liberal Democrat approach out there was about 47 hours too long. That phrase “on message, in volume, over time” applies to them too. You aren’t doing anything to create a stronger economy in a fairer society enabling everyone to get on in life while you’re giving a completely inaccurate account of a meeting to a journalist.
If the Observer is right, and there is such an enquiry going on, I want to see a renewed focus on issues rather than picking fights and a better and more effective rebuttal operation come out of it. There are plenty arguments to be had with Labour, the Tories and the SNP, not each other.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings