Observer reports enquiry into leader’s team’s press briefings on Cable

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 Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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39 Comments

  • Nick needs to surround himself with people who are instinctively liberal, people who have deep roots in the party. That way instant responses to events would chime with party opinion, not flounder around for days before eventually approximating it.

  • jedibeeftrix 22nd Sep '13 - 11:01am

    “Nick needs to surround himself with people who are instinctively liberal”

    As opposed to a bunch of instinctive political triangulators who react weather vane like to changes in a political spectrum determined by the big two?

    That is at least the implication of his anchor comment…

  • What tonyhill said

  • Richard Dean 22nd Sep '13 - 11:52am

    What on earth does “instinctively liberal” mean?

    Trying to create divisions like this, like some kind of erroneous feeling of genetic superiority, is very illiberal indeed.

  • “Instinctively liberal” means responding immediately to illiberal provocations like the Home Office immigration lorries; it means knowing that secret courts are anathema to the core beliefs of the party you lead; it means reflecting on how the membership and supporters are going to view proposed changes to the NHS before giving them your support; it means immediate transparency when faced with allegations about possible wrong-doing in the party; it means knowing that smashing the hard discs of a national newspaper is pointless and will be construed as the action of an authoritarian state; it means not taking two years to apologise for breaking a pledge…shall I go on?

  • Richard Dean 22nd Sep '13 - 12:39pm

    No, Tony, you are trying to create an artificial division based on some false idea of your superiority over others. None of the examples that you give are even specific to the liberal or LibDem parties. If you knew any liberal principles you wouldn’t do that.

  • I honestly have no idea what you mean by those remarks, Richard, but I’m not going to take offence!

  • “He vetoed Theresa May’s plans because, he said, they were “right for the establishment but wrong for the people.”

    Let’s not forget that he publicly defended those plans for several weeks before deciding they were wrong …

  • Peter Chegwyn 22nd Sep '13 - 1:46pm

    “Instinctively liberal” also means being tolerant of the views of others and not indulging in personal smears of a Damian McBride variety, for example, by accusing others of “some false idea of your superiority” or “If you knew any liberal principles” etc.

    Richard, I think you owe Tony an apology!

  • John Pugh MP ‏@johnpughmp 15 Sep
    Who told Nick Robinson that Vince Cable’s view on economy was outvoted 55-2? Whoever it was has no regard for the truth. I kept the score.

  • This explains a lot and seems much closer to my understanding of what went on. However, I think it is a little naive to say that ‘Nick got the tone right’. This is what party leaders do: appear reasonable themselves, whilst getting their aides to knife their colleagues.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Sep '13 - 3:28pm

    “Instinctively liberal” is clearly an illiberal attempt to create a special category of person. Indeed the original comment was suggesting that only “instinctively liberal” people are acceptable to surround Nick. What a very illiberal point of view!

    Anyone who has seen prejudice in action will likely know what happens next. Pretty soon these self-styled “instinctively liberal” people will be claiming that they are the only people capable of running the party or holding office or deciding policy.

    Liberal is probably best defined by reference to liberal principles, not by reference to instinct. A liberal would be a person whose policies, opinions, and actions derive from liberal principles. Including the principle of rational argument rather than appeal to “instinct”.

  • Mark Blackburn 22nd Sep '13 - 3:37pm

    If true, so much for the ‘new politics’, and adds some meat to rumours circulating before and at conference regarding leadership tactics ref the economy motion. Would be disappointing to find such unpleasant and undemocratic behaviour going on in our party, hoped we were above this. Meanwhile wholly with @tonyhill – his detractors place too much emphasis on the word ‘instinctive’ and too little on ‘liberal’ – Vince’s speech at SLF Conf comes to mind – our policies should be informed by liberal values (Vince) not spoon-fed downwards from a hardcore centre-right element with its own agenda (me)..

  • a hardcore centre-right element with its own agenda (me)

    Not sure that came out quite how you intended, Mark!

  • Paul in Twickenham 22nd Sep '13 - 5:01pm

    @Richard Dean – are you being serious or simply being provocative? Your argument (if I may use that description) appears to be that it is perfectly possible to be a Liberal by reference to some agreed authority as to what constitutes the characteristics of “Liberalism” without the need to feel any affinity for – or emotional resonance with – those characteristics.

    The “special category” of “instinctive Liberals”you refer to so sniffily would seem to be people who might reasonably be expected to join a Liberal party because its principles are in harmony with their own views, as opposed to joining that party for reasons of political expediency.

    Perhaps this is a cunning way of suggesting that Nick Clegg is not an “instinctive Liberal”?

  • Richard Dean 22nd Sep '13 - 5:32pm

    @Paul in Twickenham

    It’s pretty clear that the phrase “instinctive liberal” is being used as a way of excluding some liberals, as indeed you can see from the rather odd last part of Mark Blackburn’s comment.

    If you believe instinct is equivalent to emotion, you can see that the phrase is being used to claim that an emotional attachment is somehow more valid than one that involves reference to principles. Look at tonyhill’s original claim – that the motional attachment will get the “correct” answer quickly while reference to principles will only reach an “approximation”, and do it slowly.

    Such exclusion is illiberal, as is any claim of special status due to emotion. Indeed, much human experience suggests that responses based on immediate emotions are very to lead people into error. Please look at your membership card, if you have one. Think about equality, about fairness, about voting systems.

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Sep '13 - 8:21pm

    I don’t think the problem is being an instinctive Liberal or not. The problem, as I see it, is that the people around the leader are all very young and lack experience and therefore they don’t see the problems with new legislative proposals. What is actually needed is one or two older advisors who have been in the party for a good while and preferably have held public office, or better still have been in a local coalition and had to negotiate deals. I have suggested this on several occasions but to no avail.

  • @Richard Dean. I know Tony Hill and can’t think of anyone less ‘superior’ except in the quality and sincerity of his contributions.

  • No-one is incorrect in their points on this thread but I wish you guys could be a little less fastidious about words used by others. Recently we were replying on a thread about being polite and working together as Lib Dems do. I’m sure this thread contains a blip or two.

  • A Social Liberal 23rd Sep '13 - 11:58pm

    Can a person be liberal who holds views that are mostly not liberal or agrees with policies that are not based on liberal principles?

  • Richard Dean 24th Sep '13 - 12:45am

    @A Social Liberal

    Let’s think of an example. Say someone believes that emotional people should have five votes per person, while plodding, logical thinkers should only have one. Say that the person defines “fairness” as having that five-to-one ratio. Would we say that that person was a liberal or democrat?

    Say someone else believes that the plodding, logical thinkers should have five votes, and emotional people only one. What would we say then?

  • David Wilkinson 24th Sep '13 - 6:34am

    A really good piece from Caron, sadly there still to many clever beggers in Nick’s office who have forgotton who our political opponents are and they are spending too much time playing silly internal party games, get shut of them Nick.

  • Maybe Tonyhill is saying that because Nick Clegg is not instinctively liberal he needs to surround himself with people who are.

    Maybe Tonyhill means that people who are instinctively liberal eat, drink and breathe liberal principles and all their actions, opinions and policies are grounded in liberal principles. It does not mean that there are not rational arguments and thoughts behind their actions, opinions and policies.

    I think only those people who up hold liberal principles should be in the Liberal Democrats and one of the problems the party has it doesn’t disqualify people from standing as an MP if their views were not liberal. I know of two ex-MPs who were self-confessed libertarians and so were not really liberals.

  • Richard Dean 24th Sep '13 - 8:02pm

    Careful reading of the second sentence in tonyhill’s first post indicates that a claim is being made that “instinctively liberal” people get things exactly right quickly, while others get things only approximately right, and take a long time doing so.

    That’s a claim that “instinctively liberal” people have some kind of superiority over other members of the party. As such, it has clear similarities with ideas like “white supremacy” and “only educated people should be allowed to vote” and other undesirable prejudices that are designed to give power to a small group.

    Careful reading of tonyhill’s second post suggests rather strongly that “instinctively liberal” is being defined as “agreeing or supporting certain policies that tonyhill thinks or feels are liberal”. Twisting the meanings of words to suit an opinion is also a hallmark of prejudice.

    As liberals, I suggest that we need to fight this kind of thing.

    Perhaps tonyhill would like to clarify? Perhaps Amalric would like to explain the unjustified claim that “Nick Clegg is not instinctively liberal”.

  • Richard Dean 24th Sep '13 - 8:16pm

    The problem with being “instinctive” is, of course, that instinct is sometimes wrong – that’s its nature. I imagine that tonyhill is a nice sort of person, probably not meaning any prejudice. I would have been perfectly happy with “Nick needs to surround himself with people who have deep roots in the party”. That could be arguable. But not a claim to some kind of mystical inner wisdom.

  • Let me put tuppence in here. I have frequently argued that there is such a thing as fundamentalist liberalism, an excessive and disproportionate emphasis on individual freedom above all other conflicting goals such as fairness, which should be opposed. I am therefore not wholly in sympathy with the phrase “instinctive liberalism”. One does have to be a bit more analytic than that.

    However, some issues are simpler than that. Any liberal, whether fundamentalist or more rational, would react naturally and immediately against gross offences like secret courts, or secret surveillance not answerable to any checks and balances.

    Clegg doesn’t get that. His problem is analogous to having a Labour leader who hates the unions, or a Tory leader who doesn’t like rich people. It is a leadership that doesn’t make sense.

  • Richard Dean 25th Sep '13 - 10:54am

    Tuppence is obviously worth a whole lot more these days!

    It seems tome that the problem for Clegg is not his liberalism, but coalition. Coalition means that the partners must each willingly make some positive contribution to government , while not getting their own way on some things. It also means that the leadership needs to be united even though each leader may be dissatisfied, because visibly fractured leadership quickly produces breakup and chaos.

    LibDems are the junior partners in this coalition, so they get a lot less than they want. Clegg is doing what a leader in these circumstances should do, viz (1) maintain a united leadership of the county while (2) maintaining the freedom to complain for those party members who do not have the responsibilities of government.

    Of course Cable is a completely different kettle of fish. A manipulator of opinion par excellence. A dictator in liberal clothing, in my opinion. Doing whatever he wants under cover of excellent flim-flam. Perhaps others are coming to that realization too, hence the feeling behind the remark “The good doctor has been well and truly put back in his box”

  • Max Wilkinson 25th Sep '13 - 8:03pm

    Why has a discussion about apparent briefings against Vince Cable turned into a ridiculous, abstract debate about liberalism?

    It’s clearly stupid and tactically naie to brief the media about a party colleague. No good can come of it. Can we at least all agree that internal disagreements should be kept behind closed doors.

  • Richard Dean 25th Sep '13 - 8:48pm

    I don’t agree to that. My experience is that disagreements can get resolved by airing them in as open a forum as possible. The open forum allows more information to enter the debate, allows hidden errors to be detected more easily, and sometimes allows the characters involved to see themselves in different, illuminating lights.

  • @ Richard Deane
    I think David Allen makes good points about Nick Clegg’s lack of “instinctive liberalism”.
    Nick Clegg in his speech didn’t say that when making the hard decisions he was guided by liberal principles but only if he could sleep afterwards. If he was an instinctive liberal then liberal principles would be his guiding principles. It is not about having to be coalition because Nick Clegg has a veto over everything not in the coalition agreement. In the past leaders of Council Groups in joint control who are instinctive liberals can grow support for the Liberal Democrats.

    Richard you seem only to see the negatives about instincts. We have an instinct for life, social contact and love.

  • I think that a better term than “instinctive liberalism” might be “temperamental liberalism.” Liberalism is, in my opinion, less a matter of ideology (i.e., a set of inflexible, one-size-fits-all nostrums that are applied to any problem however inappropriate) than of temperament — a way of approaching problems, rather than a preconceived set of solutions. The goal is to maximize the freedom of the individual to live his or her life as he or she sees fit, not as mandated or dictated by some other entity — whether that entity be State, Church, party, corporation, union, or any other ideological, political, religious, or economic system that limits the individual’s capacity for pursuing his or her own happiness. However, if that happiness happens to consist in following a particular set of ideological, political, religious or economic dicta, the liberal will support that too — the liberal’s goal is emphatically not to substitute his or her own opinions on how life should be lived for another’s, no matter how misguided they may seem.

    However, in pursuit of that goal, any number of methods can be attempted, and liberals ought not be dogmatic about which are best, though they should pay attention to the evidence of experience and other indicators of probable success. But no idea ought be rejected simply because of its source — rather, one should ask whether the idea will truly make people’s lives better.

    Someone who is temperamentally liberal is, I think, always asking that question. Someone who is not may well vote in a liberal manner on some occasions, but thinks in terms of a series of policy prescriptions, and asks not “will this work?” or “will most people benefit by it?” but rather “is this politically advantageous?” “what does the party say about it?” “will I advance my career by supporting it?”

  • As I seem to have inadvertently diverted this discussion by the use of the term “instinctively liberal” can I thank David-1 for his excellent elaboration above.

  • Richard Dean 26th Sep '13 - 10:16am

    Interesting that tonyhill started off by suggesting that “instinctive liberals” would be the ones who are best able to correctly and quickly answer the question “what does the party say about it?” ” , and that David-1 suggests that this is the very opposite of what a “temperamental liberal” would focus on.

    A liberal would recognize quickly that the ideas of “instinctively liberal” and “temperamental liberal” are divisive tricks whose only aim is to support the idea of valuing one person’s opinion more than another. I suggest that people re-read their LibDem membership cards. Equality and community are as important on that card as Liberty.

  • A Social Liberal 26th Sep '13 - 1:29pm

    So if, as Simon Titley suggests, it is well known who was briefing against Cable using lies and half truths – why has it taken five days (and counting) to bring the investigation to a conclusion. Is it because there is no will to out the culprit or is Simon wrong?

  • @ Richard Dean
    Perhaps it is me but you seem to be saying that the Liberal Democrats should include people who are not Liberals. You can’t be in the party unless you support all three values of liberty, equality and community and believe that no-one should be held back by poverty, ignorance or conformity. So if someone disagrees with these values and beliefs then they should be refused membership and if a member should have their membership terminated.

    It seems to me that members of the party should expect the party leader and their advisers to drink, eat and breathe these liberal values and beliefs.

  • Richard Dean 26th Sep '13 - 7:41pm

    Almaric. It is you. There is no reason to suppose that the party leader does not hold those Libdem values.

  • @ Richard Dean
    I didn’t say that Nick didn’t hold Lib Dem values I believe that he isn’t an “instinctive liberal”.
    However you wrote, “Equality and community are as important on that card as Liberty”, which I understood to mean that you were saying that someone could be in the Liberal Democrats so long as they believed in equality and community and so could forget about Liberty. Also from your earlier posts I had the impression that you believe it is OK for those who didn’t believe in liberalism to be members of the Liberal Democrats. Which was the point of my last post which you haven’t replied to.

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