Opinion: Not pretty, but does it matter?

The Lib Dem leadership contest should be a fantastic opportunity for the party to display its wares, offering its most talented MPs the media spotlight to exhibit their vibrant view of liberalism, and how their leadership will elevate the party. At times – including last Thursday’s Question Time – that’s how it’s been. Today’s BBC1 Politics Show was a sad sight for anyone who wants our two would-be leaders to promenade the party in its Sunday best.

Neither candidate has an unblemished record. Nick Clegg, for example, penned an article for The Guardian in February 2006 in which he levelled charges of “headline grabbing”, “opportunism” and “U-turns” against Chris Huhne. Fair or not, it’s perhaps not surprising that this time around Team Huhne have chosen to retaliate.

But the already-infamous ‘Calamity Clegg’ briefing, issued by Chris Huhne’s campaign team to the media, goes way further than Nick’s article. It resulted in a shambolic and unedifying spectacle out of which neither candidate emerged looking good – and, frankly, left me feeling grubby.

Chris Huhne, to my mind, went way too far in defending the ‘Calamity Clegg’ briefing (though not its title). There are those who will say this is exactly the kind of leader we need: a man with cojones, left seemingly unruffled by Jon Sopel’s wholly legitimate ambush. For too long, we liberals have been too nicey-nice, and allowed the other parties to take advantage: a party leader with some gumption, unafraid to put some stick about, is well overdue.

It’s a fair point. But there are ways and means. I doubt many folk – whether party members or floating voters – could have watched today’s programme, and felt more positive about the Liberal Democrats afterwards. It is a good thing that Chris should display real hunger to win. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of the party’s reputation. Sharp elbows can be a positive attribute; but they shouldn’t be used on your fellow team-members (and certainly not with such seeming relish).

So, yes, Nick Clegg has some right to feel bruised tonight. But in another way he should be grateful. If (and I stress if) he wins the Lib Dem leadership then today’s debate will be by no means the toughest test he faces. He needs to work out how better to defend himself against the kind of onslaught he was on the receiving end of today; because it is just the kind of thing which will happen in the heat of an election campaign. And he needs to show himself to be tough enough to withstand it, without losing his cool, while successfully conveying a positive message. In both the televised hustings, he’s been too evidently discomforted by the unexpected.

Today was an opportunity to show the Lib Dems at our positive best. Surely, there have to be better ways to win than allowing us to be depicted at our negative worst?

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19 Comments

  • Steve Comer 18th Nov '07 - 9:29pm

    Good balanced posting here Stephen. The media may want to keep this ‘memo’ story running and running, but I hope both candidates will get back to the issues in this contest. There are policy differences between them, so this contest is NOT just about ‘presentation’ or ‘likeability’, as some said when it started. Its about who will put over our message best to the voters we need to attract, not who you would like to move in next door or date your sibling!

    One interesting difference emerged at the Plymouth hustings on the NHS. Nick seemed to be thinking in terms of elected PCT’s while Chris wanted PCT’s to be part of elected Principal Councils along the lines of the Danish model. This is an important difference, and one that would benefit from further exposure. As Lib Dem Leader in an authority dealing with huge Adult Care issues and an ageing population, I know which model would give you a joined up approach, higher quality care and better value for money, and which would not.

    So lete have more debate on substantive issues like the NHS, Housing and the Economy please.

  • Huhne has just lost the election- right there. It’s like Reagan’s 11th commandment, thou shalt not attack a fellow Liberal Democrat.

  • Angus J Huck 18th Nov '07 - 10:42pm

    I have just had the benefit of seeing a snippet of the controversial exchange on the BBC Ten O’clock News.

    Chris was aggressive, sure. But sometimes you have to be.

    Nick was being evasive about policy, and Chris was trying to flush him out, which is what a rival candidate is supposed to do.

    There are many of us who fear that Nick has an agenda of taking the party to the right (memories of David Owen), and with good reason – the evidence is there. Chris is absolutely right to challenge him.

    Let’s have Chris behaving just like that in front of Blair and Cameron at PMQs.

  • Angus J Huck 18th Nov '07 - 10:43pm

    Sorry, I meant BROWN and Cameron.

  • Can’t believe people (here and elsewhere on the net) are naive enough to see that as an “ambush” by Sopel. Huhne knew the contents of that briefing note by heart. That was a cynical, deliberate, contrived set-up by a contender who knows he is behind, and has decided that wholesale character assassination of his opponent is the only way he can try to claw his way back in. Shame on the likes of Newby et al who are advising him too. Huhne was prepared for that, and dealt with it accordingly. Not surprised Clegg looked shocked. If it was a political opponent in normal politics, he could have hit back hard. He was right not to today. But Huhne deserves a damn good going over behind closed doors from anyone who cares about our party’s future. Before today I’d comfortably have seen Huhne in a good position in a Clegg team. Now I’m only torn as to whether he deserves the extra time to defend Eastleigh that a backbench role will give him. Nasty, unseemly behaviour which reflects badly and leaves a very sour taste in the mouth.

  • I’m get increasingly worried at the number of “Sir, he was mean to me” kind of posts proliferating all over the LD blogsphere.

    Have people already forgotten that the only reason we are ditching a wise and principled parliamentarian in Ming Campbell is precisely because the media, and lots of other people, are mean to him?

    I have been happy at the prospect of either leader, though I am supporting Huhne. I thought Nick could handle the leadership. Can he or not? If he needs legions of supporters like Rob to cry “unfair” at the first roughing up, then I start to get worried that he cant…

    I really dont think what happened today was a big deal. This is politics. It’s rough. The media will make a big thing of it because they were bored with the contest so far. Dont sing to their tune…

  • Daniel Bowen 18th Nov '07 - 11:54pm

    At last, a sensible thread!

    The next week should be spent ironing out some of the ‘real’ issues to be taking stuff forward. Agree with those saying that the roughing up is nothing compared to what will come.

  • Dan Falchikov 19th Nov '07 - 12:03am

    Fair enough summary, but what comes out most is that neither is actually any good.

    A quick google on US politics would have shown Huhne how to trash an (in effect) primary opponent with a bit of grace and without damaging the party.

    If Clegg had done the same he would have been easily able to rebut the Huhne attack with relative ease.

    The fact that both are so unskilled at the basics doesn’t bode well whoever wins.

  • Dan,

    I have a feeling that American examples are not being entirely ignored, as I suggest here-

    http://antonyhook.wordpress.com/2007/11/18/the-clegg-obama-connection/

  • The bigger issue to me is that the contents of the briefing note and Huhne’s verbal attack are so disingenuous. The constant attack on Clegg for things he doesn’t support (eg “US style education vouchers”) is pretty desperate.

  • Letters From A Tory 19th Nov '07 - 8:01am

    I very much agree. Clegg should be turning this to his advantage, not crying foul to the party faithful. He should be able to brush this off with ease but instead he is getting bogged down in it.

  • Rob Blackie 19th Nov '07 - 8:11am

    Can I suggest that we should be nicer to each other in an internal party contest because we’re in the same party and don’t want to give ammunition to our opponents? And that means reading everything you write in the contest (including on LDV) and thinking about whether it could be taken out of context on a Tory leaflet.

    That’s what worries me about the attacks.

  • Chris Huhne’s outburst may well have a similar effect to Kinnock’s premature jubilation at an election rally.

  • Steve Comer 19th Nov '07 - 9:34pm

    In response to MatGB @ 2, the point I was making is that mny elderly and vulnerbale people end up being shuttled between NHS to Social Services, and there is a lack of connectivity between the two.

    I have some personal experience of this, a few years ago my elderly mother in law had to go into hospital for tests. But once they had done their medical equivalent of an ‘MOT’ she was simply sent home again! No thought appeared to be given to what support she might need after discharge. This is not an isolated case (remember the stories about ‘bed blocking’ we get every winter?).

    Merging PCT’s with principal local authotities would enable a more person-centred apporach to the elderly and vulnerable. Directly electing PCT’s would be (slightly) more democratic but would make only a minor difference operationally.

    I feel this isa key difference between the two candidates, and an important one with an ageing UK population.

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