On leaving the “best job in politics”

It is with a heavy heart that after nearly a decade working for the party in one form or another, I am finally moving on. I started as a press officer a few months into Nick Clegg’s leadership and since last summer I have had the privilege of serving as the party’s Director of Communications. In that time I have managed to clock up three General Elections, three referendums, three party leaders, four chief executives, 18 spring and autumn conferences, nine TV debate ‘spin rooms’, two crucial by-election victories, one Glee Club (I walked out and vowed never to return), one Daily Mail hatchet job, and snuck references to Milton Keynes (#cityofdreams) into two party leaders’ conference speeches. I even met my wife Thais at a Lib Dem conference.

The most memorable moment for me came a few minutes after the first ITV Leader’s Debate in April 2010. I was in the spin room at the Manchester Hilton when all the journalists in my eye line started rushing to the back of the room. I turned to see that Peter Mandelson had wafted in, with a swarm of cameras, Dictaphones and shorthand notebooks forming around him within seconds. I edged a little closer, in time to hear the opening words of his no doubt carefully crafted response: “Nick Clegg won”. The full sentence was “Nick Clegg won on style but Gordon Brown won on substance”, but when the Dark Lord of Spin acknowledges in any form at all that your guy won, you know you have stepped through the looking glass.

That night changed the course of our party’s fortunes, but it also changed my life. I had joined the press office of a party that hadn’t been in national government for decades, with no expectation that would be changing any time soon. A few short years later I would be working in 10 Downing Street. And five years on from that fateful night in Manchester, I would be sat at two in the morning in the smoky front room of Nick Clegg’s flat in south west Sheffield, as the scale of our 2015 collapse began to become apparent, helping him to write a resignation speech. 

I have always been incredibly proud of the choice we made to join the coalition, and of the difference we have made to millions of people’s lives as a result. And I was proud – once the dust had settled – to see the way that speech struck a chord with so many people and the way it soon began to feel not like the end of something but, perhaps, the beginning of something instead.

When I was asked by Tim Farron and Tim Gordon to return to LDHQ as Director of Communications last summer, shortly after the referendum, I felt the opportunity to play a key role in the party’s fightback was too good to pass up. It gave me the opportunity to influence the party’s message in a way that I had long felt was necessary: focusing first and foremost on communicating our values and picking our political and policy battles based on what they said about the sort of people we are. Hence the use of ‘open, tolerant and united’ as a shorthand way of communicating what we stand for and the focus on issues like Brexit, the rights of EU citizens and the refugee crisis. The intention going into 2017 was to expand our message so that we had a substantive response to the crisis in our NHS and social care system (the penny on income tax being the most eye-catching element) and on the economy. That plan was rudely interrupted by an unexpected election and a change of the top of our party, but there is no one better placed to pick up these themes with seriousness and credibility than Vince.

Obviously, I didn’t do any of that on my own. It was all hand in glove with the direction set for us by Tim Farron as leader, informed by the party’s research and built on the expertise, dedication and talent of staff in LDHQ. I have had the privilege to lead a Press Office that has been praised repeatedly by national journalists, not to mention described as ‘the most entertaining thing in politics’; a policy team that produced the most credible manifesto of any party; and a digital content team that, if resourced in peacetime the way it was during the election campaign, is capable of brilliant things.

As far as I’m concerned, being Director of Communications for the Liberal Democrats is the best job in politics. I’m not giving it up lightly, but Thais and I have recently moved out of London (to Milton Keynes, naturally) and our daughter Penny was born shortly after the election. Life comes at you fast sometimes and it feels like the right time to hand the baton on. If you fancy the gig, you can apply here.

* Phil Reilly was Nick Clegg's speechwriter and Director of Communications for the Party until November 2017

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20 Comments

  • But the election wasn’t unexpected. Tim had called for their to be an early election and the party had put many measures in place to prepare for it including preparation for a manifesto.

  • OnceALibDem 12th Nov ’17 – 10:26am…I don’t recall that but Tim said there would be a Tory ‘landslide victory’ in 2017 and that Labour had ‘ “lost the right to call themselves the opposition” ….

    It was, as it turned out, our party, rather than Labour, that lost its share of the vote..

  • I too think we’ve seen peak Corbyn. Of course the Corbyn surge was unexpected by most of us, but it was mainly from newly registered voters who had never been canvassed and who had registered specifically to vote for Jeremy Corbyn (and some of whom came out of polling stations confused because his name wasn’t on the ballot paper). And as neither we nor the Tories were treating Labour as a credible alternative for government, Corbyn got, as Nick Clegg said, abuse but little scrutiny during the election campaign.
    The question is would Corbyn stand up to proper scrutiny in an election campaign in which Labour under his leadership was treated as a credible alternative for government. I suspect not. Those new voters who suddenly appeared on the electoral roll can be canvassed and persuaded.
    There is a big mountain to climb for the party, but I do not accept the counsel of despair from theakes and certain others. theakes was, after all, predicting a wipeout in the June 2017 election. It didn’t happen.

  • You had a front row seat to some of the most interesting times (good and bad) in modern politics – congratulations for weathering that storm (relatively intact?), and good luck for the future Phil.

    I hope the principles of “Open, Tolerant, United” continue to underline the party message – and that you’ll be back here to share some stories.

    AM.

  • Jack Fletcher 12th Nov '17 - 12:16pm

    Undoubtedly you are one of the grown-ups who stood up to be counted during our party’s toughest times – you’ll be much missed, Phil. It’s been a pleasure to work with you over the last five years.

  • David Evans 12th Nov '17 - 3:31pm

    I just wonder how proud you can be of a time in coalition when we squandered 50 years of hard work by activists across the country. What we got in return was five years of propping up a Conservative government who were focussed on one thing – destroying our party. Election rules were changed so the richest could pour almost unlimited resources into our seats, and once they had achieved that, our heartlands were totally undermined.

    The difference we made to millions of those five years – many now have no Lib Dems to fight for them in their area at any level of government; a Tory party taking us out of the EU; young voters driven into the arms of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

    However, Nick gave a good speech at the end of it all. What’s not to like?

  • Tony Greaves 12th Nov '17 - 8:11pm

    Yes. Much of the past ten years have indeed turned out to be a disaster for our party. But it would be churlish not to recognise a lot of hard work. Now, one hopes, a number of things can be reassessed and we can use our sadly diminished resources on more effective things, as well as setting off with better Liberal political priorities – not least playing a leading part in stopping the pending calamity of Brexit. But we are still here, and now we must move forward again.

  • Indeed it would be churlish not to recognises hard work Tony, but the repeated disasters, every May year after year, of our time in coalition, showed that we were working hard to support the Conservatives, not Liberal Democracy. It takes principle to do the right thing in those circumstances, not hard work presenting failure as success. Until that changes, we will not move forward.

  • Mark Cooper 13th Nov '17 - 8:13am

    Nick Clegg’s role and importance will be recognised favourably when the history of the 21st century is written and your place as a guiding hand will be recognised as well. A brilliant achievement, Phil; that you are still so young bodes well for your future.

  • Just witnessed the worst period of Liberal/Liberal Democrat political history since the party was formed in 1860’s. There can be no glossing over that. Where we go from here is anyones guess, Labour have stolen our radical and even pro EU vote, and IF there is another election in 6 months we again have to comabt the prospect of wipe out.

  • Tony Greaves 12th Nov ’17 – 8:11pm……..Yes. Much of the past ten years have indeed turned out to be a disaster for our party. But it would be churlish not to recognise a lot of hard work…..
    An interesting thought..
    As David Evans posted, destroying 50 years of effort in 5 years ..
    I’m sure the Vandals thought destroying Rome was hard work, if you ignore the long years it took to create…

  • Chris Burden 13th Nov '17 - 12:01pm

    Fare thee well Nick. You deployed great skill in our cause. It was not your fault that NC failed to recognise the vicious and malevolent nature of our coalition ‘partners’ until too late. What you successfully did was to oversee a professional, fluent and effective stream of communication, putting across our views in the face of vastly better resourced opponents. Despite the damage at representational level, we are older and wiser, chastened but better equipped to take on the monumental challenges our party and our country faces.
    Our party must move on from ‘muddle in the Middle’. It must offer more than pragmatic, rational argument, more than neurotically nuanced variations on theme of Conventional Wisdom. We must be a Movement. We must offer a vision dramatically different from tired, terminally corrupt Labservary. A refreshing view of Human Nature. Britain Re-Booted!

  • Peter Watson 13th Nov '17 - 12:47pm

    @Mark Cooper “Nick Clegg’s role and importance will be recognised favourably when the history of the 21st century is written”
    Why?

  • Nigel Bliss 14th Nov ’17 – 4:22pm………………I think the coalition was a great success for the country, if not the Party! We stopped a lot of the worst excesses of the Tories but made the fatal mistake of putting the country first and not ourselves…….

    I wrote, on another thread, that the next time I read such nonsense I’d scream….

    “Arghhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!”

  • Belinda Brooks-Gordo 17th Nov '17 - 3:04pm

    Your sunny optimism and speedy wit will be missed very much. The energy in the room always goes up when you are in it. I wish you, Thais and the family much happiness in MK.

  • Nigel Hardy 17th Nov '17 - 8:29pm

    Alex Macfie – If you had a crystal ball for the next GE and Corbyn I wonder what it might reveal.

    If we have passed peak Corbyn, the Tories on self destruct mode, and the LibDems struggling to recover its position nationally the next government could be very interesting. It could be that Labour limp through with enough seats to form a rainbow coalition of national unity. JC, would hate that, being of fight and govern alone school. How would he a keep a coalition together of three parties each vying for their policy interests would be a question. Tories are hopefully going to enjoy the indignity (for them) of the opposition benches for a generation. If they get re-elected something extremely dodgy will have allowed that and the country will be sunk.

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