Writing this piece, I started by looking back at what was written on Nick’s first anniversary a year ago.
Over 2008 the party was averaging around 16% in the polls and whilst showing a great deal of promise, the consensus was that Clegg still had some way to go to fulfil his potential, with the Lisbon Treaty confusion and that Piers Morgan interview being two of the more memorable moments.
2009 has been a very different story. It’s still been a struggle to get our voice heard in the national media – that’s not going to change anytime soon outside the official election period. But it’s a struggle in which the party, and Clegg’s team in particular, are getting a lot better at gaining the upper hand.
Think of the Gurkhas; of the MPs’ expenses scandal. Think of the economic debates and the Queen’s Speech. Look at the poll ratings, averaging 3% higher than last year on the back of a steady stream of local by-election victories.
Nick’s become a lot more assured and confident – witness his performances in Prime Minister’s Questions, where he frequently lands more hits with two questions than Cameron manages with six.
Importantly, Nick and his team are getting better at grabbing that most precious of commodities for the third party – media attention.
They’ve figured out it isn’t enough to send out a stream of slightly dull press releases, no matter how worthy they might be. To get noticed, the Lib Dems have to not only say something different, but say it in a different way too.
So we had Nick with Joanna Lumley after the Gurkha victory, Nick calling for the summer recess to be cancelled while MPs reformed our outdated system, Nick suggesting the whole Queen’s Speech should be scrapped and, controversially, Nick’s call for “savage cuts” at the party conference in Bournemouth.
We also saw the successful promotion of other front benchers. Not just the sainted Vince, but also MPs like Chris Huhne, Evan Harris and Norman Baker making an impact. It’s a sign of Nick’s growing confidence and standing that the reappearance on the national stage of both Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown added to his stature rather than attracting negative comparisons.
At this stage in the parliament the media narrative could easily have cut out the Lib Dems completely. That it hasn’t and that, even without an Iraq war-style issue to boost us, the party is polling in the late teens and early twenties three to six months out from the general election, is a good sign.
There’s still a long way to go, but the signs are positive for a Lib Dem election showing a lot better than many would have feared earlier in the parliament when the party giving its dirty linen an airing with two changes of leader in as many years. Nick and his team deserve a big chunk of the credit.