How Labour saw Clegg before the 2010 election TV debates

clegg debateThere have been a couple of fascinating posts this week by election expert Philip Cowley, a politics professor at Nottingham University. They reveal for the first time the internal briefing prepared for Labour dissecting the debating skills of each of the three party leaders — Clegg, Brown and Cameron — ahead of the 2010 leaders’ debate.

Yesterday’s focused on David Cameron. Today the spotlight of hindsight is shone on Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown. Below is the assessment of the Lib Dem leader — and what’s perhaps most interesting is how thin it is compared to the assessment of Cameron.

There are some hints of how Nick would approach the debates which inspired ‘Cleggmania’ — just 3 years ago, yet somehow a lifetime! — but its generally dismissive tone highlights how little attention was paid to the threat he posed.

The briefing on Nick Clegg is the shortest of the three, not least because (as the briefing notes) ‘most of the time he simply appears anonymous – he has little room to impose himself on the political stage and this seems to frustrate him more than anything’. But it added presciently, ‘he will relish the platform the TV debates give his party’. In full, it read:

– “he rarely commands attention or authority in the House of Commons, mainly because of the physical position in the Chamber from which he speaks, and the tendency of Labour and Conservative MPs to shout him down

– he tends to sound moderate, fair and reasonable

– but his strongest performances have been where he has been moved to anger at injustice

– on issues like Iraq (which his party opposed) he is able to sound justified and genuine without being smug or droning on

– most of the time he simply appears anonymous – he has little room to impose himself on the political stage and this seems to frustrate him more than anything – he will relish the platform the TV debates give his party

– his party’s tendency to sit on the fence makes him appear pleasant but dull, uninspiring but unthreatening

– he is continually exasperated by the confidence and braggadocio with which the two main leaders dismiss him

– however he should not be underestimated: Gordon and Cameron are used to fighting each other – only Clegg is well used to fighting with both hands – albeit weakly”.

As Dennis Kavanagh and I showed in our book on the 2010 election, once Labour and the Conservatives began their full debate rehearsals, they soon realised just what an opportunity the debates would give Nick Clegg.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Geoffrey Payne 16th Apr '13 - 12:29pm

    It seems odd that they accused him of sitting on the fence, when Labour were triangulating whilst they were in office.

  • Danny Langley 16th Apr '13 - 1:07pm

    Off to stick “braggadocio” in a Focus leaflet and no one is going to stop me.

  • Clegg as a political unknown to the public was gifted a golden opportunity to embody the most potent political message of all – we need change. He seized it in the first debate. It would have been difficult to fail. However he seemed to have no strategy at all for the subsequent debates and he began to sound like a one trick pony. As the debates wore on he came across as insincere, peevish and vaguely embarrassed by his party. Someone or other said he addresses the electorate like he’s a children’s television presenter. That seemed to me to be horribly, horribly accurate. Cleggmania evaporated because when people took a second look what they saw was just another self-regarding posh boy, a bad political actor who knows his lines but can’t deliver them with any sincerity, a shimmering nothing. It’s a tragedy that he happened to be the leader at the election when neither Labour or the Tories looked to the public like a credible government.

  • I’m sure I won a braggadocio at a fair when I was little…

  • Clegg won the first debate, and the lib dems shot up to 30% in the polls. They then were subjected to an onslaught from the tory media the sort of which is usually reserved for the Labour party. That pushed them down again. But no problem because Clegg could not wait to appease the Tories by giving them almost everything they wanted.

    When the tory ministers come to write their autobiographies of this period I expect a recurring theme will be “we couldn’t believe it, Clegg fell for it hook line and sinker. We put forward our starting position, and Clegg just said yes, yes, yes.”

  • paul barker 16th Apr '13 - 6:00pm

    Libdem performance in “The Polls” usually follows a U shaped curve, steep decline once The Election is over, slow falls till mid-term & avery steep rise during the next Election campaign. Cleggmania was a slightly exagererated of theusual pattern, the 1st Debate having the effect of waking the voters up more suddenly than “normally.” Theres no real evidence that the Debates had much effect on Election Day. That is an argument for having more debates & for spreading them over a longer period.

  • Tony Dawson 16th Apr '13 - 7:31pm

    @Paul Barker:

    “Libdem performance in “The Polls” usually follows a U shaped curve,”

    I think more of a saucer than a sugar bowl. But then prediction is a mug’s game! 😉

    Anyway, what’s a ‘libdem’ when it’s at home?

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '13 - 11:31pm


    Clegg won the first debate, and the lib dems shot up to 30% in the polls. They then were subjected to an onslaught from the tory media the sort of which is usually reserved for the Labour party. That pushed them down again.

    The Liberal Democrat share in the opinion polls was showing a big rise before the first debate. At least some of what is attributed to that debate actually came from the Liberal Democrats getting busy distributing pre-election literature, I know that’s what I was doing in the week before the debate. It’s well known that when people are reminded of the existence of the Liberal Democrats, they tend to be more likely to express Liberal Democrat as their poll choice.

    Clegg benefited from a novelty factor. He wouldn’t have had such a novelty factor if he had made any sort of impact before. At that point hardly anyone knew who he was. So all he had to do was appear roughly equal in ability to the other two (not difficult) for many people to think “Hmm, he seems ok, maybe I’ll think about it …”.

    I wouldn’t put the subsequent fall down to just the Tory media. I didn’t see the first debate, but after the coverage, I was expecting something spectacular when I sat down to watch the second – and of course we didn’t get it. Cleggmania probably damaged the Liberal Democrats – it built up unrealistic expectations, and turned attention away from what has always been the party’s real strength: its local campaigners.

    It’s all very well saying “We put forward our starting position, and Clegg just said yes, yes, yes”, but what else could he have done? The alternative was a Conservative minority government, which would have called another general election within a year on the lines “Give us a majority so we can govern properly”. In the time before that general election, the Tories would have been in a win-win situation: any good news on the economy they would take credit for, any bad news they would blame on the “instability” caused by the existence of enough Liberal Democrats to deny them a majority. Obviously, they would concentrate on crowd-pleasing policies during that time, leaving the big service cuts till after they won their majority.

    Given that the Liberal Democrats ended the election going downwards, they were always likely to be the biggest losers of another general election coming soon afterwards. Also, it was hardly a secret that the party had gone for bust in the May 2010 general election, and had no funds left to fight another one soon.

    The distortions of the electoral system denied the Liberal Democrats enough MPs to be anything like an equal partner in the coalition – Clegg was VERY foolish to have played it as if they were, again building up expectations that could not be fulfilled. It also denied the Liberal Democrats enough MPs to make a coalition with Labour a viable alternative. The consequence was that Clegg had almost nothing to bargain with when going into the coalition. So, although the electoral system did not quite give a Tory majority, in effect it did what its supporters – including almost all Labour politicians who were vocal in the 2011 referendum said was its best thing – it delivered a government dominated by the party which won the most votes, able to act decisively because of the distortions against third parties. Anyone who voted “No” in the referendum in effect gave their support to THIS rotten Tory-dominated government, because they voted to support the system which put it in place and ruled out any other government. The Liberal Democrats just did what they were forced to do, anyone who voted “No” in the referendum propped up the Tories by their own volition and free choice.

  • Simon Banks 17th Apr '13 - 3:08pm

    Councillor Wilfred Braggadocio was deputy leader of the Liberral Democrat group on Shuntley District Council for fourteen years. I am surprised at his name being taken in vain.

    Actually, I thought the Labour briefing was quite perceptive, if as you say thin in that it did not explore what issues Nick Clegg might exploit except Iraq.

    Perceptive commentators have said that our party at national level did not seem to know what to do with the surge from the first debate. We should have planned for it as also for other scenarios.

  • @ Matthew

    Thank you so much for your patience in explaining *yet again* what actually happened in May 2010. Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats were in a position to fight a second election, having been bankrupted by the first. The Tories, on the other hand, were spoiling for a second round and also had the money.

  • You did not have to sign up to almost everything the Tories wanted.

    And the treat of another election is a fascinating admission from a political party. Political party scared of voters does not fill me with confidence.

    A week is a long time in politics. The tories were about to go into civil war over Camerons failure to win outright. But Clegg rode to his rescue. And has been doing so ever since.

    Pretty depressing that money now trumps principles for lib dems. Unless of course Clegg supports tory vision.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Apr '13 - 12:54pm

    sally, those of us who have been long-term members of the Liberal Democrats do know what we are talking about, particularly those who have been involved with difficult balance-of-power situations in local government. If you look at my contributions to Liberal Democrat Voice over the years, you will see I have been a persistent critic of Nick Clegg, to the point where right now I regard myself as a “Liberal Democrat on strike”: I believe his leadership has been so poor that it undermines any work I might want to do for the party, and I am therefore refusing to do any campaigning work for it, or to give it any more than the minimum donation needed to retain membership until he changes or goes. So, please don’t dismiss what I am saying as the words of someone so blinded by party loyalty that he cannot see what you regard as obvious.

    I have explained the stark choice that faced the Liberal Democrats after the May 2010 general election – either the current coalition, or a minority Conservative government which would engineer things to win a majority in a general election called a few months later (as happened in 1974, the last time no party won an overall majority). When you write “And the threat of another election is a fascinating admission from a political party. Political party scared of voters does not fill me with confidence”, I am simply talking reality – anyone who wants to fight and win elections has to think in terms of reality, not fantasy. The Liberal Democrats DID end the general election with a lower share of the vote than expected. Do you honestly think that if they had refused to take part in a government and so left the country in an unstable position, they would have been thanked for it by the electorate? When you write “Pretty depressing that money now trumps principles for lib dems”, what do you mean? Don’t you understand – election literature has to be paid for. People dug deep into our pockets to help pay for the literature we distributed to try and win votes in the 2010 general election. Do you know how much it costs to produce enough leaflets to distribute across en entire constituency? If I were to insult you and accuse you of lacking principles because you did not do something because it costs tens of thousands of pounds and you did not have tens of thousands of pounds available, having just spent all your savings, how would you feel?

    I myself have said, again and again and again since the general election, and I repeated it in my previous message, that I felt Clegg made a bad tactical mistake in exaggerating his influence in the coalition, giving the impression it was almost an equal partnership, when it is not – there are five times as many Conservative MPs as Liberal Democrats. The reality is that is what the people chose to elect, and in the 2011 referendum they voted by two-to-one to say that’s what they WANTED, they WANTED this sort of distortion which so strengthens the power of the biggest party even if it fell far short of an actual majority of the votes, and they WANTED third parties to be weakened, their representation set far below their share of the votes so to limit their power. The people of this country have what they voted for. I wish they didn’t want it, I wish they hadn’t voted that way, but I live in the real world where they did. I don’t see any signs that what the people really wanted was a Liberal Democrat dominated government, so all Clegg needed to do was stamp his foot and say “I will bring chaos to this country until it does everything my party wants” and the people of this country would say “Well said Nick, we agree with you on that”. If that is what they wanted, wouldn’t they have voted for it when they had the chance?

    Regarding your point “You did not have to sign up to almost everything the Tories wanted”, have you tried reading Conservative Party discussions sites recently? Or even the Daily Mail, THE Sun, The Times, Daily Telegraph? There you will see constant moans from Conservative right-wingers about how they think the Liberal Democrats have far too much influence in this government, about how they think the Liberal Democrats are stopping them from doing what they want. In general, my position is that if people are attacking you on both sides for opposite reasons, it means you are about right – not that you will ever get thanked for it.

    That is the reality of being a junior partner in a coalition. The idea that it’s a kingmaker role where you can get whatever you want is nonsense, and that’s even when there really was a choice of government, which there was not in the UK in May 2010. As I’ve already said, the distortions of the electoral system ruled out the possibility of a Labour-LibDem coalition. If people thought that was wrong, if people thought we ought to have had the possibility of a Labour-LibDem coalition based on the votes cast, they had the opportunity to express that point by voting “Yes” in the referendum on electoral reform, which though the miserable little compromise of AV rather than a proportional system would still have changed the balance enough to give us enough Labour and LibDem MPs to have a Labour-LibDem majority. But the people of this country voted, by two-to-one, “No”. That is, when asked, they voted to say they wanted the distortion that gave us no alternative but this Tory-dominated government. Many prominent Labour politicians joined the campaign, in effect asking people to vote Conservative by asking them to vote for the principle that distortion in favour of the largest party and against third parties is a good thing. Not one prominent Labour politician so far as I can recall made the case against. That is why, so far as I am concerned, it is the Labour party which props up this rotten Tory-dominated government.

  • I understand what you are saying . I agree that you have been a big critic of the path Clegg has gone. As for the Right wing and their media propaganda machines they have nothing to winge about. They failed to win out right victory despite the worst economy since the 1930s and a Labour leader who was very unpopular, and the vast majority of the newspapers on side.

    They have done very well out of the coalition. If I was more of a cynic I would suggest that their constant whining is done to keep Lib dems from asking for anything in return. They keep the pressure on Lib dems to give more ground.

    I just do no understand why Clegg has given away so much. In particular on the NHS. I am still unsure if Lib Dems really understand what they have unleashed on the health service. And it wasn’t in the coalition agreement let alone the lib dem manifesto.

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