The lessons we must learn for Nick Clegg’s next holiday

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

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31 Comments

  • Great post Caron.
    We really must get a grip of our lines of communication, this is not the first time we’ve got caught off guard – remember the debacle over the Rennard allegations and the ‘drip drip’ response by the leadership.
    When Lynton Crosby come back from the Australian elections, we can expect a lot more of this behaviour, so we need to be ready to get our retaliation in first!

  • “The Home Office pulled a fast one by implementing this pilot without telling the Liberal Democrats.”

    What is the evidence for that, please? The statement I have seen said that “These poster vans were not cleared or agreed by Liberal Democrats in government.” That is obviously very different, and would be consistent with Lib Dem ministers having been told and not having commented either way.

  • In addition too many of those who take to the internet from our own party seem to take the view that our colleagues in government have become Tories and that ministers are always wrong. In addition they always assume the worst possible interpretation of any event and believe instinctively that what’s in the almost universally hostile press and blogosphere is correct.

    With friends like that….

  • I do have to say that people like Tim Farron were all over the media when the ‘go home vans’ and the tube/bus immigration checks happened. I’m sure I saw him on C4 news twice and in lots of papers.

    He (and Julian Huppert) were doing their bit and pulling a shift..

  • Daniel Carr 25th Aug '13 - 1:55pm

    Well said – this episode has done the party damage in an area it should really *own*. There will need to be some concrete changes to schedule 7 and perhaps other overzealous laws to get the party’s image back in shape when it comes to civil liberties.

  • Its time to sack Jeremy Browne. He is basically a tory echo in the Home Office. We all knew he was economically very close to the tories, it appears that on the question of civic liberties he is too. I really don’t know why he is in this party.

  • Sadie Smith 25th Aug '13 - 2:42pm

    Anyone know who Dave is?

  • Quite a bit puzzles me. The most important aspect is the Liberal Democrat identity as a party that will always be on the side of civil rights and sceptical of government and big organisation ‘authority’. The ‘go home’ poster vans were an embarrassment that should never have happened but the response was adequate and quite firm. The physical destruction of Guardian computers was bizarre, symbolically disturbing though ultimately not that significant: can anyone tell me why the hardware needed to be destroyed? I thought there were secure electronic means for wiping computer memory. The Miranda detention, however does seem to have been mishandled at the top of the Party. At face value there has been an important breach of civil rights, but there has been an impression that the Liberal Democrat leadership have been reluctant to adopt a position, as though something else is going on. Yet there were important points of principle, that Nick Clegg has now made that could have been aired from the start.

    Caron is right the Party does need to have procedures in place, trust in senior figures so that quick responses can be made at all times.

  • Tony Dawson 25th Aug '13 - 4:13pm

    @peter.tyzack :

    “and what happened to loyalty ?”

    I’m sure the Cabinet members are bound to come and tell us some time soon.

  • David Evans 25th Aug '13 - 4:46pm

    When Peter Tyzac says “what happened to loyalty?” he raises a very good point, but it all depends from which viewpoint you ask the question.

    If you ask what happened to the Lib Dems cabinet members’ loyalty to the David Cameron and the coalition, it remains very strong.

    If you ask what happened to the Lib Dems members’ loyalty to the party’s values, it remains very strong.

    On the other hand if you ask what happened to the Lib Dems’ members’ loyalty to the leadership’s behaviour in the coalition, it continues to be weak at best, viz the continuing severe decline in membership and

    If you ask what happened to the Lib Dems leadership’s loyalty to the party’s members, it remains very weak even disdainful, viz the lectures given to party activists by Nick at Brighton and Manchester.

  • Paul in Twickenham 25th Aug '13 - 5:01pm

    Caron makes a great point in observing the difference between Labour’s outrage at the detention of Miranda and the authoritarian attitudes they invariably displayed during their period in government – culminating in the absurd spectacle of Lieutenant Gruber and his little tank parked outside Heathrow in the lead-up to the Iraq War, an act of pure authoritarian theatre.

    However there is no escape from the cognitive dissonance that Liberals must feel at the unedifying sight of Liberal Democrat ministers condoning (if only through silence) the detention of those who wish to tell the public the extent to which their liberties have been eroded and their privacy invaded in the name of national security.

    Mr Clegg likes to tell the party rank-and-file that they need to grow up. Clearly he has reached the view that part of being grown up is to become an authoritarian in the mould of David Blunkett.

  • What Mark Pack said. Nick Clegg was totally not on holiday when pressure had to be applied to him over the course of several weeks before he begrudgingly issued anything approaching a cogent defence of the Commons parliamentary party’s agreement to secret courts. The problem is that Nick Clegg is not an thoroughly instinctive liberal, like most of the party. He is generally a strong leader. He can work himself up into a most convincing liberal lather when it suits him, but it does not come naturally. Meanwhile we get weekly (mostly) platitudes in his email letter to members. The communications operation of the party is , and continues to be, shambolic when it matters. The response to the Chris Rennard issue was typical. They had weeks – WEEKS – of warning to prepare a “one shot” defence statement but instead made a complete horlicks of the whole thing, issued one position then changed position several days later. completely the opposite from what you should do, after WEEKS of warning. A complete and unforgiveable shambles. But sadly, I don’t think Nick Clegg realises any of this. He has a tin ear where matters considered important by the party membership are concerned. A six former could have issued a perfectly acceptable liberal statement on the Mirand and drive crunching by email within minutes of them surfacing. It has damn all to do with Nick Clegg being on holiday.

  • Simon Bamonte 25th Aug '13 - 5:23pm

    @mickft: “With friends like that….”
    @peter.tyzack: “and what happened to loyalty ?”

    The ungrateful sods with their principles, love of civil liberties and their trying to hold our leaders to account! Maybe the solution is for the leadership of the LibDems and the Cleggite loyalists to dissolve the current membership and elect another one?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 25th Aug '13 - 6:56pm

    Paul, you’ve reminded me that Nick was on holiday when the Rennard story broke & again we had his delay before the full response.

  • I’m sure we’re all familiar with the general trope that Nick Clegg (and the LibDems) are irrelevant and risible. The party, its MPs and its ministers need to work to demonstrate that that is not true. They rarely do.

    What we have to deal with is things like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RP8jepN3zMc , which I was viewing for an unrelated purpose. The quips about Nick Clegg from about 6:30 in are probably irretrievable.

  • 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. ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL! Why is this not already happening? Is it that Clegg fears that this would boost up a rival within the party too much? Could it not be Vince Cable … as much as I love him, he can not be seriously considered as a rival for the leadership, yet he has both the gravitas and the gut instincts of a Lib Dem to fulfil this role (and enough of the rottweiler to boot).

  • Picking up on Peter Tyzack, Paul Walter etc
    Surely, a Party Leader has a first duty to pick up on the values of the party as they craft reactions to all manner of events. Any of us who have been through the approval and selection processes of the party, at council candidate, and especially PPC level (and PEPC level, as Clegg must have done), know that a substantial hurdle for some people is whether or not their values are compatible with the Lib Dems. Now, I am aware that in some areas, eg economic outcomes and issues of peace and war, those values are contested within the party, but on the issue of freedom, the secret state etc, we have a very clear and, I think, unique, set of values (I expect the Greens would argue they are as committed to freedom as us, but there you are).

    The fact that Nick Clegg has not spoken quickly and decisively on these issues several times now, and indeed “misspoken” (in that terrible current phrase!) speaks to an unsureness and lack of sympathy, as Paul Walter has put more strongly, with fundamental Lib Dem principles. The issue of the holiday is relevant in another way, that is, NC has not ensured his spokespeople are imbued with those same values, so they instinctively understand what is, and what is not acceptable within those principles. He should be more careful who he recruits, and how he briefs and trains his immediate staff.

    The issue of loyalty, to which Peter Tyzack alludes, goes both ways, of course. If NC is loyal to his people and their values, he can expect some loyalty in return, but these things are conditional in politics, as surely Peter understands. Again, we are back to the issue of why people have deserted the party, as members, active supporters, and voters, since 2010 – because they feel that party leaders have not supported party values and principles when it has counted.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 26th Aug '13 - 9:55am

    I think Paul, Tim and others underestimate Nick Clegg’s innate liberalism. Look at the stuff he’s been fighting for: extra money to help disadvantaged kids at school to give them the best possible start in life, his campaigning for the Gurkhas and now Afghan interpreters, his role in rolling back terrorism powers, storage of DNA, ending the detention of children in horrific places like Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel. And the great thing about the web snooping was that he listened to what the party was saying, unlike on secret courts.

  • Caron, I know I have a bit of “a thing” about this – which started long ago before NC was ever leader, when he clearly couldn’t see much wrong with Tories – in front of an amazed South West audience of Lib Dems! For many years I put it down to political naivete on his part, having seen similar cases many times over the years. I think, however, it has gone on too long while he has held the senior positions he does to describe it in that way. I know he has some liberal sympathies, I also know that he is a very nice man on a personal level, but he doesn’t seem to get the mainstream of passionate liberalism, which we are all supposed to. His repetitive arguing for what he calls “centrism”, which seems like non-liberal ideas more in keeping with the Daily Mail, or the other two “old parties” as Charles Kennedy would have labelled them. The only other interpretation is putting votes (he thought) ahead of principle.

  • Points taken, Caron (9.55)

  • David Allen 26th Aug '13 - 8:01pm

    “The problem is that Nick Clegg is not an thoroughly instinctive liberal, like most of the party. … He can work himself up into a most convincing liberal lather when it suits him, but it does not come naturally.”

    In the early days of Coalition, the opposite gloss was applied. When Osbornomics started to bite, when the scale of the tuition fees debacle began to become clear, and when Nick first started to talk openly about the economy like a natural Tory, it was civil liberties which were held out as our big Lib Dem win. We had scrapped the ID Card! We were soon about to scrap child detention! And yes, Nick had somehow to explain away his early tutelage by Leon Brittan. The answer was civil liberties! Nick could not possibly have joined the Tories, because whatever his positioning might be on economic affairs, commitments to civil liberties and human rights were at the core of his fundamental beliefs.

    What fundamental beliefs?

  • Debby Hallett 26th Aug '13 - 8:56pm

    We do have a deputy leader. Couldn’t he cover for NC when he’s away? What did Simon Huges have to say about any of these issues?

  • For those who are interested and wish to see our liberty credentials raised high, one of our MEPs, the redoubtable Sarah Ludford, is busy working up a conference motion on the (miss) application of anti-terrorism legislation, as high-lighted by the Miranda incident.

  • David Wilkinson 27th Aug '13 - 7:00pm

    Caron lists some of the good things Nick done, but then along comes Secret Courts, the Bedroom Tax, the NHS, Legal Aid,the attacks on the Unemployed and Poor, the easy attitude to the rich and bankers, but at least he is not a Tory?
    The latest episode on the erosion of our civil liberties and his personal silence sadly undermines Clegg, he is after the leader of a party based Liberal values.
    The comment about loyalty, I was at the local government conference in Manchester when I had to listen to Clegg’s little lecture on not taking government seriosly, that’s when loyalty went through the window.
    A leader sperate from his party

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