Nick Clegg’s two spells of holiday this Summer have been characterised by the Home Office in particular getting above itself in his absence. Both the party and Nick’s Special Advisers should have learned from the furore over the “Go home” poster vans. The Home Office pulled a fast one by implementing this pilot without telling the Liberal Democrats. The response from the Party was the right one – that they were “disproportionate, distasteful and ineffective” and Vince Cable saying a few days later that they were stupid and offensive. The problem was that the response came out by carrier pigeon rather than tweet. It took far too long. When you have a 24 hour news cycle, taking 48 hours to get your story out is as slow as, in the words of Blackadder, an asthmatic ant carrying heavy shopping.
Sadly, as we’ve seen this week, there was a similarly slow response to the events surrounding the detention of David Miranda and the destruction by consent of the Guardian data. The story broke on Sunday night. A direct response from Nick Clegg took almost a week. In that time, Theresa May had been all over the airwaves saying some disgracefully chilling things, most particularly that those who opposed the use of the powers needed to think very carefully about what they were condoning. Yes, a credible and authoratative Liberal Democrat peer, former Director of Public Prosecutions Ken MacDonald, took her to task, as the Guardian reports, saying:
That is a rather ugly argument. To suggest that people who are concerned about the use of a power of this sort against journalists are condoning terrorism, which seems to be the implication of that remark, is an extremely ugly and unhelpful sentiment.
People who are concerned about these issues are not condoning terrorism. They are asking a perfectly legitimate question, which is: are we striking the balance in the right place between security and liberty?”
He added: “Let’s wait and see what the independent review of this episode has to say before we start accusing people of condoning terrorism and nonsense of that sort.”
The problem was that MacDonald is not part of the leadership. Why was there no Liberal Democrat minister on camera saying this sort of thing at a very early stage in this? It took until Wednesday for a statement to be sent to the press and Thursday before a Minister got involved. Where was Vince when we needed him?
Next time Nick Clegg goes on holiday, we need to have robust back-up in place to deal with the routine attempts of our coalition partners to do a number on us, and to respond to any events which arise during his absence. We should have learned our lesson in July. Early intervention on our part would make it more difficult for the likes off Nick Cohen to write ill-informed criticism as he has in today’s Observer. Now, Nick Cohen is not a fan of the Liberal Democrats. He is not known for writing nice things about us even before we were in Government, but he weaves an inaccurate narrative that we don’t care about civil liberties any more. There’s no acknowledgement that Nick Clegg stopped Theresa May’s plans on web snooping, or that the Human Rights Act would have been put through the shredder on Day 1 of a Conservative majority administration. He doesn’t recognise the massive difference in tone between Theresa May and the Liberal Democrats. Imagine if we weren’t there. We’d have a Home Secretary untroubled by questions about the legality of the detention and unchallenged within the corridors of power. That is serious. I would also not be surprised by a Labour Home Secretary taking a similar line. Few commentators point out the dissonance between Labour’s outrage in opposition and its actions in Government.
It is hard enough, even in government, for our voice to be heard. It’s not good enough to whisper, belatedly, when a big story is taking hold. We need to be part of it from the start or others will write the stories for us, and they won’t be good.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings